Defining Biomedical Informatics

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What is public health informatics?

Rafeek Yusuf, MD, a student enrolled in the MPH/PhD public health informatics dual degree program at UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics and UT School of Public Health, shares his story.

Rafeek Yusuf, MD, embarked upon his journey in health care working as a surgeon in orthopedic and trauma units. For nine years, in Nigeria and the U.K., he participated in exploratory surgeries for gunshot wounds, hip and knee replacements, and spinal and joint fusion surgeries.

“As a surgeon, I enjoyed the impact I had on patients, but I felt I could help even more people,” said Yusuf. “I wanted to look at the bigger picture in health care and find solutions to problems impacting large populations rather than focusing on one patient at a time.”

Yusuf thought that his medical training was too restrictive, and he longed to be a well-rounded health care professional who could think outside the box. He discovered health informatics while completing a certificate program in information systems management in Nigeria. He later decided to pursue a dual degree focused on public health informatics because it united his love of technology with his ambition to impact patient health at a population level.

“I believe that for every patient I see as a clinician there are hundreds out there who, for various reasons, could not make it to the hospital,” said Yusuf. “I decided to study disciplines (public health and biomedical informatics) that focus on the health and well-being of populations using the most modern means of information and communication technologies because I felt compelled to reach those larger under served and disadvantaged populations.”

Defining public health informatics

The American Medical Informatics Association defines public health informatics as, “the application of informatics in areas of public health, including surveillance, prevention, preparedness and health promotion. Public health informatics—and the related population informatics—work on information and technology issues from the perspective of groups of individuals.”

Within the area of public health, AMIA generally focuses on “the development and use of interoperable information systems for public health functions such as biosurveillance, outbreak management, electronic laboratory reporting and prevention.”

Yusuf believes that the field of public health informatics has the capacity to improve overall health, health outcomes and quality of life for large groups of people, with the aid of information systems, data analytics, devices, technological tools and novel methodologies.

A unique academic experience

After determining the next step in his health care journey, Yusuf researched several institutions in the U.S. that offered dual degree programs in public health and informatics and decided on The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston’s dual degree program with The School of Biomedical Informatics and The School of Public Health.

The top reasons for his decision to choose the public health informatics dual degree program at UTHealth were the degree programs offered, the location in the world’s largest medical center, the faculty, the curriculum, opportunities for student and faculty interaction, and the potential for student and faculty research collaborations as well as collaborations with other researchers and students in the Texas Medical Center.

“So far, my expectations of the dual degree program have been exceeded. I have learned priceless academic, research, professional and personal lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my career,” said Yusuf. “The faculty, classes, curriculum, my fellow students and staff are phenomenal. I believe I am in the right place, at the right time, doing the right program with the right people.”

Yusuf is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in health informatics and a Master of Public Health because he believes that completing these advanced degrees will allow him to positively impact public health, but he doesn’t stop there. Yusuf constantly encourages his fellow clinicians to seek training in biomedical informatics.

“Different periods—such as the Stone Age, Ice Age and Jet Age—have left their mark on the development and advancement of the human race,” said Yusuf. “I think it is time for the Information Age to transform the world through biomedical informatics. Medicine, unlike other sectors such as finance and aviation, has been slow to embrace and adapt to the use of information science and information and communication technology.

“To remain relevant, retain a competitive edge, reduce medical errors, and improve the quality of care and health outcomes of patients, health care workers need to be trained in health informatics.”

The impact of public health informatics on health care

Public health advancements are already being made via informatics tools, such as the use of geographic information systems to enhance surveillance and disease reporting and applications like the Comprehensive Assessment for Tracking Community Health, which provides systematic methods for performing health needs assessments at the community level. CATCH allows for appropriate decision making regarding resource allocation, health care policy development and strategy implementation, information dissemination in various formats, and hypothesis generation that can lead to further research into population health issues.

“Public health informatics, like informatics in general, is still an emerging field, but I believe public health informatics has chronicled important accomplishments in the past couple of decades—especially in the area of public health information systems such as active national surveillance systems used for identifying and reporting public health concerns,” said Yusuf. “For the future, I see public health informatics building on its achievements and making major advances in the areas of emergency response and disaster relief management, chronic non-communicable disease management, and the management of neglected tropical diseases and mental health.”