Informatics: Balancing Application and Theory - Page 2

Laura Gunn, recruiting manager at CapGemini Health, said a persons degree is just "one piece of the puzzle" when considering job applicants. "We are primarily interested in those programs that enable their students to quickly and effectively contribute as consultants and produce results, whether the program is theoretically oriented or transactionally oriented," she said, adding that candidates also need real-world experience, and that the opportunities students created for themselves in educational programs could factor heavily.

Russ Altman, director of the Biomedical Informatics Training Program at Stanford University, said a theoretical underpinning provides the most powerful options. "The most important thing is to understand the core methods for manipulating information. Then you can apply it to different situations," he said.

"The translation of theory into practice is a difficult problem. Some argue that this is best left to industry, where they have resources to do it right, and the reward system is more clear for a well-engineered practical system. I tend to agree," he said, adding that some of his colleagues at Stanford would not.

Students choice of school impacts their future careers. "Individuals take on responsibilities largely influenced by their training," said Joseph Hales, director of information systems/medical informatics and a professor of medical informatics at the University of Utah, hastening to add that the trends were small. "Those with an applied background seem to focus more on running systems, using EMRs [emergency medical records] as a tool to improve safety or process, building tools that make systems more useful. Those with a more theoretical background often take a more academic approach, even if in an operational or commercial setting. They are designers, working to enhance fundamental understanding or demonstrate the utility of advanced features of EMRs.

"Programs that are more theoretical have historically produced more informaticists who stay closer to academics, either in a faculty position or at academic medical centers, while programs characterized as more applied have historically produced more informaticists that have moved on to industry." But these distinctions are fluid, he said, since applied informatics can quickly veer into the theoretical when trying to solve difficult problems.

COMING SOON: Bioinformatics and medical informatics. One discipline or two?

Program names are emblematic: "Health informatics" is considered a fairly broad. Some feel that "medical informatics" excludes non-physicians like nurses and that "bioinformatics" is an entirely different discipline. The 18 programs supported by the NLM use at least eight different descriptors; "biomedical" and "medical" are the most common. The word "and" as in "biomedical and health informatics" or "biology and medicine" or "computation and informatics" recurs.


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