Hello, I’m a Medical Informaticist…

While attending a social function, you’ve probably been asked, “So, what do you do for a living?” It’s a common question among new acquaintances at these gatherings. You may find it’s becoming more challenging to answer this question, especially as our roles in healthcare evolve. These days, people might get more than they bargained for when they ask me what I do…

My response begins: “Well, I’m an emergency physician and medical psychotherapist, however, I spend most of my time doing medical informatics.”

“Medical what?” They ask, and I rev myself up for my answer like a gleeful cat about to pounce on her favourite ball of yarn.

“Don’t worry, not many people know what a medical informaticist is.” I begin reassuringly, “I help healthcare providers and systems capture, manage, and present data in meaningful ways to clinicians and their patients in order to improve the safety, efficiency, and quality of care. When organizations implement health information systems, I advise them on how to build useful systems for their physicians and clinicians – systems they can effectively adopt. I also teach them how to sustain the system and use it as a powerful clinical tool.”

This explanation is usually followed by some blank stares or perhaps a polite “Oh” and head nod. I’m pretty sure they still don’t understand. I persist, recognizing they may wish to move on to other topics, but I’m a woman with a mission.

“It’s kind of like when radiology was first invented a hundred years ago. Wilhelm Roentgen took the first x-ray in 1895. However, the actual application of this technology to enhance patient care took many more years. It required a combination of efforts from people skilled at technically creating an image and providers who specialized in interpreting the image into clinically meaningful information to help guide the care of the patient. It took about 30 years from the first x-ray to the recognition of radiology as a necessary specialty in medicine.

“Now we have many new, exciting technologies being introduced into healthcare. The health information system is a critical one that manages data about patient journeys.

It has the power to standardize care and to deliver patient-specific decision support right at the point of decision-making. Imagine the wisdom of your Google ads captured in a system that helps deliver care to patients.”

“Oh! So, you sort of Googlize healthcare!” Mention Google and they somehow miraculously seem to understand.

“Well, I’m certainly involved in leveraging technology to improve healthcare. Though there are challenges. You see, in the radiology example that I gave earlier, the developing radiology specialists could provide a service directly to a patient, which works well in our fee-for-service environment. As a physician trying to teach my colleagues how to use the new systems we have today, I am dependent on hospitals or other organizations paying for my time. I can’t bill a patient because I’m not aiding in the care of just one patient, I’m caring for the system as a whole.

Unfortunately, we currently live in an age where we do not understand that clinicians who understand technology systems are needed in order to fully realize the benefits of those technologies. Progress is being made! In the US there is now board certification for medical informatics. Here in Canada we are still a work in progress.

“Next time you see your clinician struggling with a computer system or wish they would adopt a helpful patient app, remember that they are unlikely to get there without the help of their specialized medical informatics colleagues. Express your needs to your local hospital administration or elected official and help support the development of a needed specialty.”

And the next time you see me at a social function, you’ll already know a little more about me, so maybe we can spend our time diving into how you would like to see healthcare change.

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