Blog / Focus: Technology

Healthcare industry–targeting malware increases the need for health informatics professionals

By Jackie Roberson / Special to Healthcare Facilities Today
May 16, 2018

There is no denying that when WannaCry ripped through the National Health Service, it ravaged individual hospitals and care centers, as well. Healthcare facilities around the U.K. turned away patients, closed their doors, and screeched to a halt because the malware made accessing critical health information utterly impossible. One year later, those same hospitals and care centers are hardly better protected — even a devastating ransomware attack couldn’t convince them to update their security efforts. Unfortunately, they are hardly alone in their vulnerability.

Healthcare providers of all sizes and shapes should understand the importance of their information and take steps to make it as secure as possible. Health informatics professionals take responsibility for organizing, using and protecting health-related data, making them essential members of any healthcare administration team.

What is health informatics? How does it differ from health IT?

Informatics is a branch of information engineering that studies how humans interact with different sets of data and builds information systems to facilitate the use of that data. Properly executed informatics requires the practical application of a broad array of fields, including statistics, information systems, computer science, and information technology. Health informatics further utilizes health IT to accomplish the goals of acquisition, storage, retrieval and use of information. The goal of health informatics is to ensure that a patient’s health data is sharable and accurate among various healthcare providers — as well as secure from unwanted access.

Though both health informatics and health IT use technology to facilitate the use of and protect health-related information, they are notably different fields. Most crucially, informatics is the science behind IT — the why IT makes certain decisions and the how goals are accomplished. While IT professionals might perform the work of installing systems and providing support, informatics professionals study needs and design systems to address those needs. In healthcare administration, informatics and IT work hand in glove to ensure that data remains safe and secure.

How does one become an informatics professional?

Informatics is an academic field of study, like nursing or computer science. Thus, the first step to working in health informatics is gaining academic credentials in the field. However, health informatics is relatively unique in that most health informatics professionals have prior clinical experience in the healthcare field. Often, the issues they encounter in their daily work drives them to learn more about informatics and resolve common obstacles and vulnerabilities in healthcare IT.

Still, prior clinical experience isn’t mandatory. Anyone can earn a health informatics certificate online in as little as two years, without a lengthy applications or testing process. However, after obtaining this critical credential, students will need to decide at what level they will apply their knowledge:

• Provider. Informatics professionals often work alongside clinicians to develop efficient systems for inputting, storing, and using information. Eventually, professionals can rise to prestigious positions like CMIO and CQO.

• Industry. Sometimes, informatics professionals consult non-provider businesses in the healthcare industry to guide the design of products or services. This is often more appropriate for professionals who prefer working primarily in an IT environment.

• Academic. Though it will require additional academic training, informatics professionals can teach and research informatics in the academic realm. Those role benefits not only one healthcare provider but all the healthcare field thanks to refinement of widespread informatics theories and practices.

• Government. Informatics professionals can function as policy workers, helping legislators develop programs that address the needs and concerns of clinicians.

Can informatics professionals help the fight against malware?

The security of health information is a primary concern of health informatics. As electronic health record databases become more commonplace, the risk of losing that data to greedy cybercriminals increases. Thus, informatics professionals must consider security as they design the systems that house health information.

Still, more malware emerges every day. Is it possible for informatics initiatives to develop systems that are wholly resistant to attack? The answer is no — it is impossible to predict how cyberattacks will evolve. Then again, it is equally difficult to predict future security solutions; likely, as artificial intelligence develops, systems will be able to learn patterns and predict unknown attacks.

Regardless, modern informatics professionals can keep health data safer by building systems that defend against known and common types of attack. Currently, few healthcare providers boast even that level of security, so informatics is a critical field that will grow within healthcare.

Jackie Roberson is a content coordinator with Seek Visibility.


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