Health Information Systems: Health Care for the Present and Future

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A woman sits on her living room couch looking at her tablet device, where we see the image of her doctor smiling at her during a telehealth appointment.

Information saves lives. This is especially true in the medical field. Health care administrators, doctors, and nurses who access patient and population health data can make crucial decisions about care that could make all the difference in the world to their patients.

Placing health data into the right hands quickly depends on health information systems, which seamlessly and intelligently integrate health care with information technology. A health information system enables health care organizations to collect, store, manage, analyze, and optimize patient treatment histories and other key data.

These systems also enable health care providers to easily get information about macro environments such as community health trends. Further, health information systems give insight into specific providers or health care organizations — for example, commonly used treatments or interventions that are linked with best outcomes.

Doctors and nurses use health information systems to make data-driven decisions regarding various facets of patient care. For example, quick access to patient medical histories can bring previous treatments to light.

Health information systems are also invaluable to administrators, who can analyze statistics about different departments or procedures to better allocate the organization’s resources.

Familiarity with these systems is crucial for anyone seeking to be a vital member of a health care organization. A smart way to learn more is to explore or enroll in an advanced educational program, such as a Master of Health Administration degree, where health information systems are a cornerstone of the curriculum.

What Is the Purpose of Health Information Systems?

Within any given health care environment, health care professionals gather, store, manage, and analyze health data.

They use this information to develop comprehensive care plans; improving patient outcomes and judiciously allocating the organization’s resources (including staff).

Understanding the Purpose of Health Information Systems

Health information systems help organizations ensure superior patient outcomes. Some examples include the following.

Data Analytics and Health Information Systems

Health care organizations are constantly generating data. This includes data about surgical volume, length of hospital stay, patient health trends, insurance claims and billing, costs and revenue associated with patient care, and beyond. A primary purpose of health information systems is to help organizations capture this data, interpret it, and put it to practical use.

Collaboration with Health Information Systems

Often, patients need treatments from different health care providers. For example, a patient might receive preliminary diagnosis and treatment from a primary care doctor before being referred to a specialist. Easily transferable patient records ensure each provider works with the same basic information, making collaborative patient care seamless.

Population Health Management with Information Systems

Information systems offer a way for providers to identify trends in community health concerns. For example, some basic statistical analysis can reveal whether a local population is uniquely prone to diabetes. In recent months, the coronavirus pandemic has provided a clear example of how the smart use of health information systems supports population health, giving public health officials the tools they need to track cases and monitor regional outbreaks.

Cost Control and Health Information Systems

Access to health information systems plays an important role in helping contain costs. Doctors and nurses can analyze patient histories, as well as similar case studies, and make more finely honed treatment decisions. Meanwhile, administrators can monitor patient volumes in different departments, and judiciously allocate staffing and other resources to where they are most needed.

The Use of Clinical vs. Non-Clinical Data

Clinical and non-clinical data can both be useful in a health care organization, with important distinctions between the two.

Clinical Data Definition

Clinical data refers to information about the direct administration of treatment or patient care. Some examples include comorbidities that show up in a patient’s medical history, or outcomes associated with a particular surgical intervention or medical procedure.

Non-Clinical Data Definition

Non-clinical data refers to information that’s not directly related to patient treatment but may still influence the way professionals use health care facilities and resources. For example, information about the geographic reach of an organization (from how far away are people coming?) can help administrators make decisions about whether to extend their ambulance services, whether to open satellite clinics, or whether to invest in outreach to outlying parts of the community.

What Are the Different Types of Health Information Systems?

In any health care organization, it’s typical to see several different systems working together within a broader IT environment. It’s helpful to understand some of these different health information systems.

Patient-Facing vs. Provider-Facing Systems

One point of distinction between systems includes those designed for patient input and those designed to face the health care provider or an administrator.

Patient-Facing Health Information Systems

Many health care organizations now offer “patient portals,” which may be either websites or apps. Patients can log in to personal accounts to access secure information about their own medical history, such as records of previous doctor’s visits. Often, physicians or nurses will record a care plan, including recommended medicines or follow-ups, allowing the patient to participate in their own treatment. Patient portals also help patients see the results of lab work or other testing, schedule non-urgent appointments, or check the status of payments or insurance benefits.

Provider-Facing Health Information Systems

Other systems are intended for providers. These systems may include information about population health, trends within the hospital, or other data that can inform treatment decisions.

Cloud-Based Health Information Systems

Another important distinction involves cloud-based information systems, where common records are made accessible across different departments or even different facilities.

For example, in a five-hospital system, providers at each facility can log in to the remote cloud server to view or amend patient records.

Cloud-based systems play an important role in collaborative care. The patient’s journey is not always linear, and a comprehensive treatment plan may involve the patient seeking input from different providers, specialists, or therapists.

When each provider in this chain can easily access the same information, it helps ensure a clear picture of the patient’s treatment history, minimizes redundant treatments, and keeps providers all on the same page.

Examples of Health Information Systems

Within these overarching categories are several specific examples of health information systems. Here are a few of the most common ones.

Practice Management Software

Within any health care setting, a large volume of administrative overhead must be attended to, from keeping track of appointments to sending out bills, and much more. Practice management software is commonly used by the front office team of a medical practice to automate much of this work.

Master Patient Index

The master patient index links individual patient files across various databases. This health information system has an entry for every registered patient. It consolidates all information connected to that patient’s treatment history.

Health care administrators use master patient indexes to eliminate redundant patient files and also remove any incorrect patient information that might lead to claim denials.

Patient Portal

The patient portal, mentioned previously, allows a patient to log in to a secure account and view information about their own recent visits. Often, patient portals enable doctors and nurses to send confidential messages to patients, whether to share lab results or simply recap what was discussed at a recent visit. Patient portals also offer patients a way to securely and confidentially message their provider to ask follow-up questions.

Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM), or Telehealth

Remote patient monitoring enables providers to keep tabs on patient vital signs, blood pressure, or other biometrics, even when patients return home. Generally, this is accomplished with the use of sensors, which patients may discreetly wear at home, school, or work. Sensors automatically transmit information back to the provider.

In this way, providers can remotely monitor patients with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes. It also lets providers determine when patients need further clinical intervention.

Clinical Decision Support (CDS)

Clinical decision support (CDS) systems enable providers to access and evaluate data from a number of subsystems, including both clinical and administrative ones.

This information is intended to help providers make prudent decisions about clinical treatment. For example, information from a CDS system can help a provider more quickly and accurately prepare a diagnosis or predict how different medications will interact.

While a CDS system may rely on trends and data points from an entire patient population, providers can filter this information and use it to make the best decisions for each individual patient.

Electronic Health Records (EHR)

Each electronic health record (EHR) corresponds with a specific patient and provides a long-term, holistic view of that patient’s health. It might include any of the following information.

  • The patient’s testing and treatment history
  • The patient’s demographic data
  • A list of medications the patient has taken (or is currently taking)
  • A history of present illness

Generally speaking, an EHR will go wherever the patient goes, and it’s used by different providers or specialists to make informed treatment decisions.

Electronic Medical Record: Definition and Purpose

One of the most basic and familiar health information systems is the electronic medical record, or EMR.

Most patients are familiar with the concept of a medical chart ― a file of paperwork kept on hand at a specific physician’s office. This file includes a comprehensive history of the patient’s diagnoses, test results, and treatments within that medical practice.

The electronic medical record is essentially a digitized version of the paper chart. With that said, EMRs have a number of advantages over paper records.

  • With EMRs, providers can more easily track data over time.
  • EMRs allow for digital automation. For example, an EMR system can alert medical providers when a patient needs to be brought in for a checkup or for a preventive screening.
  • Providers can also use EMR data to check how their patients are doing according to certain parameters, such as blood pressure readings, vaccination histories, etc.

A common question about EMR data: How does it compare with an EHR system? While there are some points of similarity, the clearest distinction is that EMR data is typically confined to a particular medical practice. It is not easily transferred out of the office, and as such it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to broad collaborative care.

For this reason, EHR systems have started to overtake electronic medical records, as they are more easily transmitted between different doctors and specialists, enabling them to work together toward optimal patient outcomes.

This is especially important in time-sensitive or emergency care situations, where quick access to a patient’s history can make all the difference to the ultimate treatment outcome.

The Essentials of Health Information Systems and Technology

Health information systems can benefit a health care organization in several ways. To realize these benefits, however, the organization must put the proper technological infrastructure in place. This includes both fundamental software and hardware requirements.

Effective implementation of health information systems requires a secure wireless network, which connects all associated devices and enables information to be accessed and shared from anywhere within the organization.

It’s also critical to have convenient workstations from which providers, nurses, technicians, and administrators can access records. These may include desktops, laptops, and/or tablets.

Additional considerations for the implementation of health information systems include:

  • Comprehensive employee training, encompassing not only the efficient use of the information systems but also best practices for maintaining network security and ensuring patient privacy.
  • Data encryption and backup, both of which can help safeguard data from cyberattacks, hackers, or system failures.
  • Cyber insurance, which can protect the organization from legal liability in the event that patient data is compromised.

Who oversees the implementation of health information systems?

While providers and nurses may use and benefit from these systems, it’s usually an administrator who puts the health information strategy into place and ensures that it’s properly maintained.

In a larger hospital setting there is likely to be an IT team, led by a chief information officer (CIO) or a chief technology officer (CTO). In smaller practices, this responsibility may fall to the practice manager.

As information technology becomes increasingly central to health care, administrators must be familiar with the role data can play in shaping patient care strategies.

Indeed, health information systems provide an avenue for hospital decision-makers to make the best possible use of resources, achieving optimal patient outcomes as efficiently as possible.

The Future of Health Care

Through health information systems, organizations can better compete and thrive in an increasingly digitized medical landscape. They are better positioned to achieve health care goals as efficiently as possible and empower doctors and nurses to deliver the best outcomes for their patient’s.

Those who are curious about a career in health administration can benefit from a background in information systems. Ohio University’s online Master of Health Administration program provides comprehensive training in the foundational aspects of care delivery—including a focus on the role of IT.

This curriculum is specifically designed to help aspiring administrators reach their career goals and add real-world value to health care organizations. Learn more about the program today.

Recommended Readings

National Patient Safety Goals for Health Care
MHA Career Path: How to Become a Hospital Administrator
Health Care Administration vs. Health Care Management: What’s the Difference?


American Academy of Family Physicians, EHR Hardware Basics
Business News Daily, Best Medical Practice Management Software of 2020
Center for Connected Health Policy, Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM)
Digital Guardian, What is a Health Information System?, Clinical Decision Support, What is an Electronic Health Record (EHR)?, What is a Patient Portal?
NCBI, Health Information System in a Cloud Computing Context
The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, Health IT: Advancing America’s Health Care