What is Health Care Information Systems?

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Health care organizations’ increasing use of digital systems in every aspect of their operations is in step with general trends across industries, but with some unique factors. The data being stored and accessed in the medical field is highly sensitive, and the stakes of effective technology use are high — improved efficiency and accuracy in health data use can save lives.

The professionals tasked with taking on information systems roles at hospitals, doctor’s offices, research facilities, and other care organizations must be at the top of their field in terms of knowledge and experience. These are individuals whose roles have only become more important in recent months as care providers have adapted their practices to cope with the changes forced by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Learning about the many interlocked aspects of health care information technology, from the most universal to the highly specific, is a way to determine whether this space is a good target for your next career move. If you’ve built familiarity with the latest IT tools through graduate-level education and hands-on experience, you may be well suited to a demanding and rewarding position in a health care information systems department.

Personnel in a hospital use a computer to check in a patient.

Types of Information Technology in Health Care

There are cutting-edge IT solutions in every department of a modern hospital or clinic. Clinical technology tools such as electronic medical records are highly specialized and designed to be used as widely as possible, with interconnectivity between different care providers and health systems being one of their major selling points. In other departments such as finance, insurance, and reception, the state of the art is roughly equal with other industries. The security measures safeguarding all these deployments are especially important, as deficiencies in these areas can put organizations at risk of noncompliance or a debilitating data loss event.

Professionals aiming for a spot on a health care information systems team should learn as much as possible about the way these solutions are used today and how they fit together to create a full technology ecosystem. Furthermore, with development moving so quickly in the medical field, it also pays to have an eye on the immediate future.

Electronic Medical Records (EMR)

The use of shared, digital health data has important repercussions for health care, which has led to focused efforts to improve this branch of medical IT. The Department of Health and Human Services now recommends that when patients are searching for new doctors, they should look for offices that use electronic health records (EHR) to receive coordinated care. That coordination comes from the ease of data sharing achieved using EHRs, with specialists and general practitioners able to access and update the same information.

Transparency Market Research analyst Smita Deshmukh describes EHRs as one of the most popular and central elements of health care technology adopted thus far, alongside patient engagement and pharmacy information tools.

EHRs are one variety of data visibility technology used by today’s medical organizations. HHS explains that these digital documents are defined by the fact that they cover every area of health regarding a single patient. EMRs are different in that they are used within a single organization and generally take the place of the paper documents that traditionally held patient information. The fact that they are easier to retrieve and add to over time makes them an upgrade from their physical predecessors.

The third digital health information storage format is the personal health record (PHR). This is set up and managed by the patient rather than the care provider. HHS explains that a PHR is generally for personal usage, tracking of individual health and wellness statistics and priorities. In some cases it is possible to link a PHR with a doctor’s EHR and ensure each party gets important information when it is available.

The rise of EHRs is notable enough that job titles are emerging solely to manage digital patient records. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics specifies that medical records and health information technicians are tasked with organizing, updating, and verifying the contents of EHRs. Turning an accumulated lifetime of medical data into a complete, accurate, and secure EHR is an important responsibility.

Everyday Clinical and Administrative Systems

Not every piece of health information technology is highly advanced or specialized. Sometimes, these technology tools are simply designed to automate common tasks and make daily operations easier for doctors, nurses, administrative staff, and other personnel in a hospital or other care facility.

Increasing the efficiency and accuracy of everyday tasks is an important priority for health care organizations. Transparency Market Research indicated that these facilities have been chasing cost-cutting measures in recent years because it is more expensive than ever to provide care at a high level. Businesses can find some of that financial relief in back-office efficiencies, improving the speed and effectiveness of everything from scheduling and billing to insurance management and patient outreach.

Anything previously managed on paper is liable to be digitized in the years ahead, if it hasn’t already made the jump. For example, pharmacists can manage prescriptions more effectively on paperless systems, while financial and budgeting tools that have made their mark in other industries can apply to hospitals and other medical facilities as well.

Whether these tools are deployed on-premises or as an on-demand service will be an interesting point to monitor in the years ahead. Transparency Market Research divided the software space into on-premises, web-based, and cloud-based categories, specifying the web market for especially fast growth due to a general need for efficient access to systems. While this may have been unthinkable a few years ago due to data security requirements, today’s remote-access systems come with protective features that rival or eclipse those in on-premises servers.

Self-Directed Patient Portals

Echoing the theme of people sharing their own health data via PHRs and EHRs, there are many self-guided features coming to the health care sector. Patients are consumers, the same as in any industry with an audience, and they expect good service from the organizations they deal with. This means hospitals and other organizations have a strong incentive to create user-friendly and convenient ways to check in, make appointments, and share information without getting on the phone.

Becker’s Hospital Review gave an example of a health system’s “virtual front door” suite. These are the technologies that allow patients to interact with their care provider digitally, on schedules and devices that suit them. For instance, a provider should maintain a user-friendly website, paired with a mobile app or smartphone-ready adaptive site design to ensure people can log in while they’re on the go. These sites should allow people to log into a portal from which they can manage their data, use a calendar to view and schedule appointments, access educational content libraries, and even use telehealth features to speak directly to physicians and other health care professionals.

Peter Kung, chief innovation officer with SCL Health, told Becker’s patient-facing tech tools should always be created with the audience’s convenience in mind. They should not make things easier for the health system if those changes to the process harm the user experience. Furthermore, ideal public-facing health IT is not purely transactional in nature, but is friendly and simple to navigate.

With people using online interfaces as their main point of contact with businesses — health providers included — the quality of the digital experience may determine satisfaction levels. People who think the suite of patient portal options is welcoming and useful are far more likely to feel positively about care organizations than those who feel they have to go around these systems or struggle to make them work. This means designing good user interfaces is a health care IT priority.

Patient Data Security Features

Health care data must not be stored without proper protective measures in place. This need for privacy and data protection existed in the era of physical documents, and has evolved alongside the technologies employed by hospitals and other care providers. The minimum measures organizations must take to protect privileged health information in all forms are codified in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Security Rule. Making this regulation work alongside the increasing ease of sharing patient data is a major task facing health care IT professionals today.

HHS explains there are four types of HIPAA safeguards that apply to digital data today. First, care providers have to make sure they are using the right administrative safeguards. This entails the choice of security measures to prevent data loss. Physical safeguards are the second type of protective measure — these are the tech tools, equipment, and procedures used to prevent people from improperly accessing data. Organizational standards comprise the contractual language around secure data. Policies and procedures, the final category, are the documented rules in place that outline correct data use.

As with any type of security today, there are many moving parts associated with creating safeguards around patient data. IT leaders don’t have to implement every policy — some of the defensive measures will involve physical controls to keep people away from restricted areas or devices. However, with more data being accessible remotely and the increasing adoption of cloud-based storage, wholly IT-based protective measures are highly relevant.

HHS recommends using HIPAA-compliant software to measure EHRs, and employing protective measures such as encryption to ensure that even if data is intercepted in transit, it won’t be usable by malicious actors. Digital security also means guarding against data being lost in a system failure rather than compromised or stolen, so IT teams should make sure they are using capable backup and recovery solutions.

Telemedicine and Remote Patient Care

Over the past few years, health systems have been working toward the use of two-way video technology to enable doctors to give patients routine check-ups and medical assessments without either party having to travel. The movement restrictions and changes in hospital usage forced by the COVID-19 pandemic have increased the speed of this transition.

Some of the last barriers stopping widespread telemedicine use have been temporarily removed, such as the licensing and insurance laws that prevented doctors seeing patients outside of their areas. The eventual effect is likely to be a long-term uptick in remote doctor visits.

Becker’s pointed out that rising use of telemedicine will come from a combination of improved network connectivity and patient mindset changes. Both of these elements are already falling into place, with people becoming more comfortable seeing their doctors through video chat programs as 5G networks come online around the country and all over the world. The next few years could see a significant portion of visits remain remote, at least in cases such as prescription renewals and visits with primary care doctors.

The Future of Healthcare Information Systems

Health technology’s ability to improve patient outcomes and experiences has led to rapid and impactful changes. In addition to updates that have gradually rolled out over the years, the health technology landscape that has developed during pandemic response efforts is pointing toward a quick embrace of new systems.

Healthcare IT News noted that being forced to use new systems made care providers less hesitant to use these solutions on a permanent basis. In addition to the exponential increases in telehealth visits, hospitals are also embracing solutions such as data analysis performed on large, anonymized information sets.

With barriers falling to digital health care acceptance — among patients and providers alike — the future will likely see the emergence of still more powerful technology tools such as artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms for clinical decision support. From the front desk to the operating theater, health care organizations are moving on from their pre-pandemic norms and using this moment to catch up with tech adoption rates in fields such as consumer goods.

Essential Skills for Jobs in Health Information Technology

Working effectively with health information technology is closely related to succeeding in any IT role, with the added responsibilities and increased stakes inherent to the field. Personnel who excel at keeping data safe and obeying strict governance requirements will naturally find their talents well-suited to roles in hospital IT departments, as will professionals able to encourage the safe and effective integration of new and innovative data storage tools.

Depending on how close a position is to clinical technology, personnel will need varying degrees of medical knowledge. The BLS notes that health information technicians tasked with managing EHRs need to understand the best ways to record patients’ medical histories in a future-proof format that will be easily accessed and understood by physicians for years to come. There exist several certification programs for individuals seeking roles working with medical data, attesting that holders have the clinical and technical knowledge to responsibly manage the sensitive data.

The scope of health care information technology varies widely, calling for diverse skill sets. Some professionals in health IT departments will be tasked with creating and maintaining secure but user-friendly patient portals connecting individuals with care providers. Others will be responsible for telehealth and other communication systems that are only set to become more popular in the years ahead. Security is its own vital corner of health care technology, and one that nobody in the field can afford to ignore. All these individuals should have strong interpersonal skills, to make sure they can communicate with each other and the clinical and administrative personnel they interact with every day.

Important Lessons from Information Systems Degree Programs

If you’re interested in taking a deeply involved technology role in a health care IT department or similarly specialized setting, you can build your knowledge base in a master’s-level program such as the online Master of Science in Management Information Systems from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business. Management information systems is the name given to the intersection of business and technology, where digital tools directly impact company outcomes.

The information systems curriculum is created by experienced IT professionals and based on the ever-changing state of the art in the technology sphere. Every aspect of modern digital processes, from server and database management to endpoint and network security, is covered in detail. Ideas that are essential to the future of the health care field, including advanced data analytics and in-depth IT governance, are heavily featured, allowing students to deepen their knowledge and experience regarding the key concepts that empower companies to better themselves through technology use.

To learn more about whether this degree is the right match for your career path in health care or another branch of information systems, visit the program page.

Recommended Readings:

3 Ways an MS in Management Information Systems Degree Can Make You an Asset to Any Company

What You Need to Know About Becoming a Chief Information Officer


Transparency Market Research — Health Care Information Systems Market

Bureau of Labor Statistics — Medical records and Health Information Technicians

Electronic Health reporter — Healthcare Information Systems: Future of Information Technology in the Healthcare Sector

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology — Health IT: Advancing America’s Health Care

Becker’s Health IT — 10 big advancements in healthcare tech during the pandemic

Healthcare IT News — Technology to the rescue – COVID-19 as an effective accelerator of digital health adoption

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology — What are the differences between electronic medical records, electronic health records, and personal health records?

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology — Understanding Electronic Health Records, the HIPAA Security Rule, and Cybersecurity