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Using Data for Good: How Population Health Informatics Can Improve Lives

Jul 10, 2024
7 min Read
Creighton University Staff

If you were to put the entirety of the world’s digital data onto DVDs, that stack of DVDs would encircle the world 222 times—and approximately one-third of that would be healthcare data, according to an IDC report.

With such an amount of available data, the field of health informatics emerged to make sense of it all. But because of the multifaceted nature of healthcare, the field of population health informatics was created to focus on specific patient groups.

In this article, we dive into the discipline of population health informatics, providing real-world examples of it in action as well as describing what it’s like working in this field.

Health informatics in population health

While health informatics is making sense of healthcare data in a myriad of use cases, population health informatics is often used for risk scoring and stratification, predictive models and categorizing a specific patient population. That population is usually based on a specific healthcare issue, and it is often associated with factors such as geographic area, age and more.  

Population health informatics is commonly used for value-based reimbursement. Value-based contracts differ from fee-based contracts in that the payment for them is based on quality. And the quality is backed by data. "So you set a target and say, ‘We're going to get this much of our population screened for depression and on some sort of intervention,’” says Doll. “And you then report that in the value-based contract to the payer so that they can pay you because you're no longer paid based on service delivery—you're paid based on the outcomes of that service delivery.”

Examples of population health informatics in action

While data alone can seem far from the patient experience, it’s what is done with it that matters. In the case of population health informatics, there are plenty of examples that show how it can be used to help people in need.

In a case study published in 2020, researchers showed how they used population health informatics to address disparities in healthcare. Specifically, the researchers were addressing the fact that “minority populations with overlapping subgroups for sexual orientation and gender identity (SO/GI) as well as race, ethnicity and language (REaL) are associated with increased undue burden of poor health outcomes, where stigma combined with vulnerable population status can lead to additional challenges for patients seeking health services.”

To identify and reduce healthcare disparities for these groups, the researchers proposed using health information technology. From 2016 to 2019, they used population health informatics tools based on electronic health records to “cohort, drive clinical decision support and enable outreach.”

Their efforts were a success. The researchers were able to increase demographic documentation for race, ethnicity and language from about 27% to over 94% and for sexual orientation and gender identity from 0.15% to just over 71%. Based on these findings, they were able to conclude that “these activities can enhance our efforts to model, measure and manage systems to improve health equity.”

In another example, Doll worked with a task force to address healthcare issues faced by Omaha’s chronically homeless population.

“There was a growing community concern that hospitals essentially house people at a very expensive rate. Shelters would call ambulances for guests recently released from the hospital and send them right back for care,” says Doll.

This created issues for hospitals. For one thing, the homeless population usually uses the emergency department as their primary care, which puts a burden on the emergency department staff trying to see patients in a timely manner. Additionally, because these patients had to be released to shelters, there were concerns about post-visit care, as evidenced by readmittance rates.

Using population health informatics tools and electronic health records for people who were categorized as unhoused, Doll’s team generated a report that showed how many days they were housed in a hospital, how many times they were readmitted after being discharged to a shelter and all of the associated costs.

“The problem wasn’t new,” Doll says. “But instead of a conversation that devolved into finger-pointing, the data made it much more objective and productive, allowing us to work toward a solution.”

That solution was a medical respite program. The 24-month pilot program sets aside a certain number of single- and double-occupancy rooms at the Siena Francis House, a shelter in Omaha for people experiencing homelessness. Patients who are well enough to leave the hospital—but who still need time to fully recover—can stay in those rooms and receive medical care in a mobile unit parked just outside the shelter.

“It was health data that really transformed the healthcare delivery for these patients,” says Doll.  

Working in population health informatics

Population health informatics is a relatively new field. In fact, the term started to be used more frequently by academics and policymakers as recently as 2016.

“Health informatics does not have its own labor designation [with the U.S. Department of Labor],” says Doll. “We signed a letter—supported by the American Medical Informatics Association—to the labor department to add health informatics as its own category. That's how new it is.”

Even without a labor designation, there are still plenty of career choices for people with a health informatics degree. Population health informaticists, for example, can find work in the private sector since, according to the JAMIA article, “a considerable portion, if not the majority, of population health services are provided by private organizations.”

Some possible career outcomes include: 

  • Health informatics specialist  
  • Population health informatician
  • Clinical informatics specialist
  • Quality improvement specialist
  • Project manager
  • Healthcare data analyst
  • Business analyst
  • Data analyst
  • Population health analyst
  • Clinical quality analyst
  • Integration analyst  

No matter the job title, healthcare as a whole is becoming more and more data- and tech-driven. 

“We need a workforce that understands the data and tech sides of healthcare,” Doll says. “They can help ensure the tech solutions that are integrated into the health systems are actually helpful to providers and patients.”

Start your career in population health informatics

If you’re looking to start a career in population health informatics, a master’s in health informatics can give you the tools you need to get started. Creighton’s program not only offers the flexibility of an online program, but it is also ideal for anyone who wants to use data and technology to contribute to the betterment of humanity.

 Students also get the opportunity to go beyond the classroom to learn—and make connections—through real-world projects.

“That’s a big focus of the program,” Doll says. “It can be something you can do in your current workplace, or we can connect you with a partner that has a significant use case that they don't have time to look at.”

If you’re ready to get started on your next career journey, learn more about the Creighton Master of Science in Health Informatics program. You can also contact us directly to request more information