SOIS Gets Serious About Health Informatics SOIS Gets Serious About Health Informatics

Every time you go to the doctor, you see it. You might not be able to look at it closely, but it’s there. The doctor scribbles in it, the nurse reviews it, and even the pharmacist sees it. It's your patient record and these days it's being digitized.

In the past ten years most hospitals and clinics have begun the automation of their records. And though the process has been quick, the transition has been shaky at best. Records still don't communicate with fluently with each other, and from hospital to hospital, systems change. Records might even be different from floor to floor or by specialty.

The way that doctors and nurses search and communicate information is changing as well. The complexity of the field of information in regard to medicine is understandably immense. Health professionals are trained in saving lives, a fact that won't always guarantee that they will know how to articulate a difficult information search.

And what about average citizens looking for simple healthcare information at home? What are the chances that will understand a complicated diagnosis or be able to process the implications of a long-term illness? Where can they go for more information?

With imminent changes to the health care system in the United States "health informatics" has become a buzzword in library and information science circles. So what does it entail exactly?

Well, for starters, everything that is covered above. In Informatics for Healthcare Professionals, health informatics is defined as the "intersection of health care, computer science and information science." But health informatics doesn’t just affect professionals in the field. It also has practical implications in everyday life.

That’s where SOIS comes into play. As a recognized leader in information science research, SOIS has a proven track record in helping ask and answer serious questions. In the past few years, SOIS has committed to training health informatics professionals through three important steps.The first is the hiring of a new full-time professor of health informatics, Dr. Karen Davies. The second is through collaboration with the School of Health Sciences to offer two programs aimed at training students in health care informatics. Finally, the school has also begun a series of research projects aimed at helping consumers investigate their own health information.

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The biggest change in recent years for the health information industry is in the electronic health record (EHR). Like a catalog record for a book, the EHR is a digital record for a patient. Championed as the solution to long waiting lines and poor handwriting, the EHR has had a profound impact on how medical professionals share information.

Because of the support of that EHRs have generated, a lot of money has gone into advancing this technology in recent years. Most notably, the health care overhaul has promised that millions more will go into developing more and better systems dedicated to facilitating EHRs.
But all of the money going into these systems begs the question, “do they actually work?” Dr. Karen Davies is studying that same question. She says that for too many years many government and health officials have ignored the information science aspect of health informatics – and often to their own detriment. “Information science is a missing element from a lot of health informatics programs” notes Davies, concluding that the emphasis falls on the more high-profile medical and computer science aspects.

Joining SOIS in August 2009 from Loughborough University in England, Davies is familiar with the needs of health professionals. Not only has she studied the information seeking behavior of doctors, but she’s also tracked the job searching techniques of health workers. She’s also worked as a librarian and knowledge manager for the National Health Service in Wales.

Davies explains that while medicine and computer science are getting along fine, the information science part is what is keeping many of these EHR-linked systems from being useful. The biggest challenge, according to Davies is that even the lowest person must be able to use the system. “It has to be fail-safe,” clarifies Davies, “it has to be designed in a way that so that medical professionals don’t have to be computer science/information technical people.”

In Britain, there have been several attempts to digital patient records. Davies studied one in particular with attempted to address the compatibility of systems. In some cases, hospitals were using old computers which made the systems run slowly and ineffectively.

The role that library and information professionals can play in shaping these systems is growing. Davies feels that there is such a dearth of understanding of human-computer interaction in the field that librarians will be needed.

Davies says that identifying opportunities for students is important part of her job. To help her students, she describes four main positions that they might explore:

•  Medical Librarian – Reference librarian for hospitals or academic centers
•  Clinical Informationalist – Reference librarian in clinical setting working with MDs/residents
•  Consumer Health Librarian – Works with patients and medical staff personal conditions
•  Public Health Librarian – Works in a more general awareness and treatment setting

In all of these positions, the librarian is helping mediate the interaction between a question and an answer. Davies admits that the titles might change, but the responsibilities will not: “librarians will be helping doctors, nurses and patients find health information.”

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Pr. Alexandra Dimitroff, an Associate Professor of Library and Information Science at SOIS, thinks that the opportunities for students in health informatics are expanding. Dimitroff has been aware of the field of health informatics for almost twenty years, but only until recently has she noticed a change. Dimitroff, who serves on a National Library of Medicine (NLM) committee, notes that organizations like the NLM have begun actively searching for information professionals in order to help close gaps in information needs.

One of those opportunities includes NLM’s Associate Fellowship, which was recently awarded to a SOIS graduate, Sarah Westphal. The fellowship is designed to train health informatics professionals for leadership positions in health information centers like libraries and government agencies. According to Dimitroff, postgraduate opportunities like these are fairly common if students know where to look. Other possibilities include internships (often paid) from academic medical libraries like the Eskind Biomedical Library at the Vanderbilt Medical Center or the Department of Biomedical Informatics at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dimitroff recognizes students may be intimidated by the idea of entering the health profession without a lot of knowledge of health-related sciences like biology and chemistry. She says that this doesn’t have to be the case. “Students going into health informatics don’t necessarily have to have a science or technology background,” states Dimitroff, who acknowledges that while some familiarity can help, it’s more important to terminology. Librarians are not legally responsible for the information they give out, as it is ultimately the doctor or patient making the final medical decision.

And students don’t have to wait until graduation to see how the profession works either. SOIS is now partnering with the School of Health Sciences to offer students an MS in Health Care Informatics as well as a dual degree MS/MLIS program. The MS in Health Care Informatics is a 35-credit program designed to offer students hands-on training in health care systems and approaches to the field.

Dr. Tim Patrick, who is an assistant professor in the School of Health Sciences and director of the health care informatics program, says that both degrees guide students in understanding scientific research and applying it to the care of patients. “Students in our program have to realize that health care systems aren’t just build on information technology – it’s important to understand how information used and moved as well,” said Patrick.

The other option to prepare students is through the MS/MLIS program. This coordinated degree option focuses on educating students in information access and management as practiced in hospitals, clinics, and other professional offices. A 56-credit program, students can complete the coursework for two degrees in less time that it would normally take to obtain two separate degrees.

Whichever they chose, students at UWM have a lot of options for learning about the professional side of health care informatics.

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Dr. Jin Zhang is looking to help everyone else understand health care informatics. Zhang, an associate professor at SOIS, is interested in the subfield of consumer health informatics and is involved in two important studies to help the public access key health information.

Consumer health informatics arose with the advent of the internet. As usage increased, more and more health care information became available online, prompting average citizens to begin investigating sites like and These sites have become understandably popular: a person concerned about their health will want the fastest and easiest way to learn about a certain condition or treatment options.

Before these sites, patients had little option outside the advice of their doctors. Information might only otherwise be available through the library or centers for medical knowledge like training hospitals. This limited the accessibility.

The challenge Zhang has is to make these consumer health sites more user friendly. In one of his studies, Zhang looks at the transaction logs from a website called HealthLink to determine the exact query terms that users string together in order to create better vocabularies. For instance, does a user actually type out “myocardial infarction,” or do they use the more common term “heart attack?” Similiarly, Zhang explores how entered terms might be related such as “obesity” and “heart disease.”

The results have been intriguing. Zhang and his fellow investigators at SOIS have found a 30% overlap in language. He wonders how much barrier language can really be for people unfamiliar with medical vocabulary.

Zhang is also exploring the browsing behavior of users on consumer health sites. Using a year’s worth of data, his research is tracking whether users prefer browsing using a tree browser or a traditional subject directory.  

But Zhang isn’t the only one exploring new solutions in health care information. Lucio Campanelli is a second-year MLIS candidate at SOIS, who has taken a keen interest in the field. Having recently taken Pr. Davies’ L&I SCI 835 Information Sources and Services in the Health Sciences course, Campanelli sees a lot of potential in a handheld information sources. “Health care issues affect people every day and it’s important to have constant access to critical information,” said Campanelli.

Campanelli is developing on a health care application for mobile devices like iPhones. He sees this as the future of health informatics. “I can get any answer I need from my phone,” he says, displaying a 360-degree picture of the human body with the touch of his finger. Campanelli believes that more consumer health users will flock to programs such as these while data phones continue to gain in popularity.

It’s not even too hard to imagine doctors eventually performing surgery with the aid of their mobile device. With the amount of information that can be stored on these devices, the advantages are hard to deny.

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From consumer health websites to EHRs, health informatics is becoming a huge – and vital – field and the School of Information Studies is striving to do its part in training the next generation of health informatics innovators. SOIS Dean Johannes Britz – who recently served as interim Dean of Health Sciences – understands the value of giving health informatics students the right skills. “SOIS has formed the partnership with the School of Health Sciences in order to stay on the cutting edge of health informatics,” said Britz. “With the degree options available, students should consider UWM a top school in the field.”

For more information about the MS or MS/MLIS in Health Care Informatics programs, please visit the following link:

UWM Graduate School: Health Care Informatics