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The Arrival of Clinical Informatics

Meaningful use is one outcome of this new medical subspecialty By Abel Kho, MD, MS

Meaningful Use entered the vocabulary for most of us as a required set of measures to receive electronic health record incentive dollars. However, at its core, Meaningful Use is centered on the principle that effective use of electronic health records can improve the quality of care we deliver to our patients. Much of the evidence behind this principle grew from clinical informatics, an interdisciplinary field that brings together best practices from clinical care, information technology, and business processes, and applies them to improving the safety, quality, and efficiency of health care. Until recently clinical informatics professionals labored in relative obscurity. No longer, and especially in Chicago.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently declared Oct. 30–Nov. 7 Informatics Week in Chicago. In his proclamation, the Mayor stated, “Chicago is a center for informatics research and education, home to thousands of health care providers who use informatics-based tools and numerous corporations that provide informatics solutions and hire informatics professionals.”

Not by accident, Informatics Week coincides with Chicago’s hosting of the American Medical Informatics Association’s (AMIA) Annual Symposium on Nov. 3–7. This premier scientific conference highlights advances in the effective use of information to improve the health of patients and populations. Chicago-based clinical informatics experts will be well represented at the conference as leaders, presenters, hosts, sponsors, and attendees.

Nationally, clinical informatics has gained important recognition. In September 2011, the American Board of Medical Specialties approved clinical informatics as a board-certified medical subspecialty. This exciting development signals public acceptance of clinical informatics as a profession, and acknowledges the significant contributions of informatics professionals to the advancement of medicine. Clinical informatics will be offered by the American Board of Preventive Medicine and the American Board of Pathology with testing to begin in late 2012. Fellowship training programs, in addition to 14 existing ones offered through the National Library of Medicine, are currently in the works. Locally, the University of Illinois at Chicago, in partnership with AMIA, offers a three-month program focused on the application of health IT to improve patient safety. Both the University of Illinois and Northwestern University offer online masters’ degrees in health informatics.

With wide adoption of electronic health records, technology-related health startup companies are emerging. This past year Chicago hosted the inaugural class of Healthbox, an accelerator program for health care startups. A number of these startups now occupy space in 1871, the technology hub on the twelfth floor of the Merchandise Mart, named after the year of the Great Chicago Fire. Similar startup accelerators have emerged in Silicon Valley, and New York City. As in any industry, most will fail, but some won’t, and many of these innovations will find their way back to the future office practice.

So as you are checking off the boxes for Meaningful Use, keep in mind you’re using tools developed by the recognized and growing medical specialty of clinical informatics, with acknowledged benefits for health care delivery. The application of technology undergoes the same scientific scrutiny and evidence-based evaluation as other treatments we prescribe for our patients.

Dr. Kho is an internist, informatics researcher, and co-executive director of the Chicago Health IT Regional Extension Center ( assisting providers in Chicago to achieve Meaningful Use of electronic health records.

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