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Revenge of the Clinical Informaticists

September 22, 2009
by Mark Hagland
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This spring, the New York Times published an article on the rise of clinical informatics degree programs and of the clinical informaticist role in healthcare, under the title, “Connecting the Dots of Medicine and Data. Of course, the Times is known for its careful, detailed reporting on topics that go beyond the most immediate news headlines. Even so, I was surprised and delighted to see this 809-word article on a topic that few outside our industry are yet aware of.

Reporter Christine Larson focused in on Russ Cucina, M.D., a practicing internal medicine specialist at UCSFMedicalCenter in San Francisco who spends half of his time at that teaching hospital practicing, and half of his time as a clinical informaticist. The article explains what Dr. Cucina does, and why, and also interviews a few other clinical informaticists who work for a vendor and for a consulting firm, respectively (and she even explains the separate subspecies of non-physician clinical informaticists, the nurse and pharmacist clinical informaticists); and talks to an accreditation official who discusses the rise of advanced-degree clinical informatics programs and what they’re about. Ms. Larson also interviewed the chairman of the department of medical informatics and clinical epidemiology at Oregon Health and ScienceUniversity, and the president and CEO of AMIA.

And, rather than presenting Dr. Cucina and his colleagues as strange aberrations of an opaque industry, the reporter tried to sketch a portrait of a key role in the emerging new healthcare, one that I personally believe will be critical to transforming our overall healthcare system. I particularly liked Dr. Cucina’s quote, “I’m the glue between the I.T. enterprise and the clinical leadership… Because I have the vocabulary of both sides, I can serve as a translator between them.” In other words, heroes of patient care quality improvement, not nerds with scotch-taped eyeglasses. (YAY!)

The good news in all this, of course, is that laypeople are increasingly being given more substantive glimpses of what the healthcare industry is all about, and that can only be for the good, even if it inevitably brings increased scrutiny to ever-deeper nooks and crannies within healthcare.

Personally, I hope more and more healthcare consumers and average (if educated) people become aware of the Russ Cucinas of healthcare: this is how our society will become better informed, and hopefully, better able to make good choices about healthcare, as consumers, as voters, and as citizens. And, in the process, it might even attract some more young people (who are desperately needed) with the talent and the interest to assume this extremely worthy role inside today’s—and tomorrow’s—patient care organizations.

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