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Medical Informatics


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What to Expect

Medical informatics students learn to create and manage information systems for medical facilities and organizations. The diversity of the field gives students a great deal of freedom to explore.

"It is an incredibly diverse field," says Janet O'Brien. She took the medical informatics program at the University of California at Davis. "What you have to do is pick an area that you are interested in and concentrate on it and use the resources of the university to further what you are interested in."

Among other things, O'Brien is interested in human speech recognition by computers. She wants to know how it can be used to search medical databases for medical concepts and connections.

Speech recognition is a technology that allows a computer to "understand," she says.

"If we always used the same word for the same meaning each time in medical notes, it would be possible for a computer application to scan the note and extract meaning from it," she says. "This would allow medical outcomes research on a scale never before possible."

This is pretty advanced stuff. And if you want to do this kind of work, you need to be pretty comfortable around computers. You have to know a thing or two about writing programming code on top of medical knowledge.

Students may end up spending a lot of time staring at a computer screen. Just ask Valerie Gibbs. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in health information science. "I spent at least 20 hours a week in the [computer] lab, working on lab assignments," she says.

Group projects are common. They generally try to reflect problems students would encounter in the real world. One project Gibbs worked on was to critique the strategic information management plan of a hospital and compare it to the plan of a regional health authority.

Gibbs had no programming experience whatsoever when she enrolled. The same was true for O'Brien. She still remembers the stress she experienced during the final exam for one of her computer classes.

"We had one course on the Internet and the final exam was to create a website in class," O'Brien says. "That was kind of a white-knuckle job."


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