Health Information (HI) Professionals - A Growing Field Within Healthcare

If you have visited a doctor’s office, hospital, or other medical care facility in the last few years, you will most likely have noticed that many of the processes that were once done on paper are now computerized. From entering your basic information to tracking appointments, prescriptions and treatments, the healthcare field in the United States and much of the world is now largely computerized.

The digital data generated by millions of patients offers a wealth of opportunities for healthcare, as an ever-growing body of information can now be searched, compared and evaluated by researchers and clinicians. However, in order for this vast store of data to be usable and secure, it must first be handled and logged by individuals with the appropriate skillset. This need has given rise to a quickly-growing field: health information.

What is Health Information?

According to the Bureau of Health and Humans Services, health information or “health information technology” refers to the electronic systems by which patient information is “stored, shared and analyzed.” Health information can include anything from basic patient information like a home address and date of birth to highly detailed treatment courses or diagnostic information about a particular disease or ailment.

The information generated through the increased and ever-increasing digitization of medical data already fills thousands of servers worldwide, but for it to be useful, it must be categorized, sorted, and evaluated. Because this process often involves considerable knowledge of information technology, this job only rarely falls on the medical professionals actually administering treatment.

Instead, it has given rise to a new profession: health information professionals. These individuals work at the intersection of digital systems and healthcare, and can now be found working for hospitals, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies alike.

Because nearly all patient information is considered private and protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, health information professionals work in an especially sensitive environment. As more and more medical practices digitize their records and workflows, the need for health information workers is set for steady future growth. Just in the “health information technologists and medical registrars” category, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting 17 percent growth between 2021 and 2031.

What Kind of Work Do Health Information Professionals Do?

Health information technologists and other professionals in the health information field deal with all of the digital data generated while insuring or treating clients.

As with most other IT jobs, much of this work takes place in front of the computer screen, with most health information (HI) technologists working in some office environment. In research applications and clinical trials, HI professionals may also work directly with researchers and physicians, lending their expertise and knowledge of health data to teams tackling any number of issues in the field of health.

At the entry-level, HI professionals may be chiefly responsible for entering information into databases, where it can be digested by computer programs. Additionally, HI may be responsible for digitizing the paper records of clinics, hospitals, and medical practices that are switching from analog to digital systems.

At a more advanced level, HI professionals are responsible for the entry and storage of medical information and for processes that make this information usable. For example, a hospital may wish to generate graphs showing its administrators the correlation between a particular disease and an age group.

For this kind of mapping to occur, patient information must first be “scrubbed” of identifying markers and personal details before it can be turned into a visual representation. Often, HI professionals are proficient in protecting the privacy of information to be used and creating computer programs that can make large data stores legible to physicians, academics or the general public. These health information workers are not only deeply knowledgeable in programs like Microsoft Excel and other database tools, but in programming languages such as Java, Python or C#. Proficiency in one or multiple programming languages can allow an HI worker to move from simple data entry into exciting and quickly growing applications in which that data is used to improve patient care or provider performance.

At the cutting edge of the health information field is the application of artificial intelligence, or AI. In this subfield of HI, patient data is not only digitized to be tracked and analyzed by healthcare professionals but actually fed into AI systems trained to make recommendations for treatment, diagnosis and other outcomes.

A recent article in the academic journal Nature describes the increasing efforts to create AI that can be used by anyone via “natural language processing.” In this application, a treating physician with no particular IT knowledge can simply “ask” a health information artificial intelligence for a recommendation or analysis, without first having to learn the programming language in which that AI was written. Health IT professionals working with AI will often have years of relevant experience and training and are highly sought after by insurance companies and healthcare providers.

How Do I become a Health Information Professional?

Health information technology is a field with many entry points. While some individuals enter the field upon attaining a postgraduate degree in a cutting-edge field such as artificial intelligence, others enter the field directly out of high school.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, many HI professionals hold an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, while others work themselves up through entry-level positions. Because of the fluid and changing nature of this fairly new field, health information should be considered wide open to individuals with strong interests in IT and the healthcare industry. Individuals interested in entering the HI world with a high school diploma or an associate’s degree will find dozens (if not hundreds of) job openings in medical data entry, with quite a few remote positions for those hoping to work from home.

Others may find it beneficial first to attain a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree to enter the field with a higher level of pay and responsibility. A selection of viable courses of study for prospective health information professionals is listed below.

College Degrees for Prospective Health Information Professionals

Bachelor’s of Science in Health Information Management

A bachelor’s degree in health information management (HIM) may be the most direct course into the world of HI, as this degree plan is catered specifically to prospective applicants to the field.

For example, the bachelor’s in health information management offered by the Western Governors University places a heavy emphasis in teaching students the specific applications and processes that are in use in the medical field today. In addition to learning the foundations of the IT systems at the heart of modern healthcare administration, students are introduced to the medical fields with which they will work in close contact, such as pharmacology and psychology.

Bachelor’s of Science in Biomedical Science

While this bachelor’s degree plan is less focused on the world of health information than a health information degree plan discussed above, it can provide an equally fruitful starting point for individuals hoping to enter the world of HI.

Graduates in biomedical science are taught at the intersection of medicine and biology and learn a great deal about the human body and the diagnosis and treatments of illnesses. While a degree in biomedical science will usually not have much of a focus on information technology, many health information professionals working today have entered the field by first attaining a degree in a medical field such as biomedicine, and then going on to either learn on the job or gaining additional qualifications in IT to increase their hireability in the field.

Master’s of Science in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

A master’s of science in artificial intelligence and machine learning is an ideal degree plan for individuals hoping to enter the field of health information at a higher rate of pay and responsibility.

As mentioned above, AI and machine learning offer exciting prospects for the world of medicine, as computer systems can process ever-increasing amounts of data and complex information. Applicants with a deep foundational knowledge in AI may enjoy some of the best job prospects in the industry, as their skillset is particularly sought after by healthcare providers looking to automate processes or even outsource diagnosis and treatment recommendations to complex computer systems.

How Much Money Do Health Information Professionals Make?

Because of the wide range of health information jobs, no single salary range will cover all bases. Entry-level positions in the HI field oftentimes require little more than digitizing analog paper records or transcribing patient information into digital databases. Because the academic requirements for this type of work are not exceptionally high, wages in this realm of health information will be comparable to other entry-level positions in the IT world. At the high end of the spectrum, health information professionals may make several hundred thousand dollars a year or more.

And because of the high level of expertise required in healthcare and healthcare administrations, as well as in information technology, individuals working at or near the top of organizations in health information can often command highly competitive wages. As the pool of professionals with working knowledge in these two highly complex fields is small, these individuals can expect much higher wages than those earned by HI professionals in entry-level positions.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022) reports the following wages for the 35,500 health information technologists and medical registrars nationwide:

  • Average annual salary: $65,280
  • 10th percentile: $34,970
  • 25th percentile: $40,930
  • 50th percentile (median): $58,250
  • 75th percentile: $81,410
  • 90th percentile: $103,380

Individuals involved in startups and other private ventures in the health information space are an additional category of health information professionals whose income may go far beyond the median wages recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Big tech companies like Google and Amazon have been moving into the health information space for several years, hoping to leverage their immense server farms and expertise in compiling and sorting information to become major providers of health information services.

With the high interest in the HI field by established tech companies and many venture capital firms, the space is rife for entrepreneurs and founders with the right expertise. With an expected growth rate of 17 percent over the coming decade, people entering the world of health information at any level should certainly expect to see steady demands for their skill sets in the coming years.

Is a Career in Health Information (HI) Right for Me?

Making career and education choices is often difficult, and the decision of whether an individual is the right fit for a job in HI should be with that person alone. However, a few skills and interests intersect with those in demand by this growing industry, and prospective entrants into the field might do well to ask themselves if they possess them.

Interest in Healthcare and Medicine

While information technology is a significant component of the work done in health information today, interest and passion for medicine are strong starting points for individuals interested in this industry.

While some jobs in the field may be entirely data-driven, many involve close cooperation with healthcare workers and practitioners. Prospective entrants into HI who already have a background in the medical field or bring a strong interest to their job will likely thrive more than those who do not.

Johannes Stitz
Johannes Stitz Writer

Johannes Stitz is a freelance writer and researcher based in the Southwest. He’s written about various topics in medical technology careers. Before turning to freelance writing, he spent nearly a decade in the arts as a booker and event manager.