Want a Career at the Intersection of Healthcare, Human Biology and Big Data? A Master's in Bioinformatics is the Ticket

In a world where big data is being generated daily by humans and human interactions with computers, there is a place where some of the biggest data ever has been hiding in plain sight for millions of years: the human body.

With the completion of the first total sequencing of human DNA thanks to the Human Genome Project in April of 2003, we know that each person’s individual genome, more unique than a fingerprint, more unique than an iris, theoretically takes up about 700 megabytes… just about the capacity of a CD-ROM.

In 1989, when the project was launched, those CD-ROMs were a brand new technology and amazingly affordable—less than a dollar for the blank media. That was a sharp contrast to magnetic storage that was still about $11 per megabyte at the time.

Today, that cost is $.02 per megabyte and falling. And it’s a good thing, because genomic and other health data is exploding… the theoretical 700 MB individual genome comes up as 200 GB in raw data. With an estimated 1 billion individuals likely to be sequenced by 2025, the field of genomics alone is expected to churn out between 2 and 40 exabytes of new data every year.

But it’s not just genetic data that needs to be stored. Measuring human vital signs of every dimension is useful to medical science, both in research and in applied medicine. And the human microbiome, the herd of microorganisms that colonize and symbiotically govern our relationship with our environment, is vast and underexplored. Each tiny organism with its own DNA sequence can be taken apart and analyzed.

Storage capacity and the cost of storing all this information is actually the least of it. Figuring out how to manage and turn that data into lifesaving healthcare treatments is the real problem. That’s where master’s educated healthcare informatics professionals come in.

Major Stakes Make Medical Informatics One of the Most Important Fields in Data Science

Health care has long focused on descriptive analytics… observing and recording data to document the state of the human system. Temperature, heart rate, blood tests and other observations help clinicians diagnose and treat almost every malady known to man.

As the cost of DNA sequencing has plunged, it has become much more practical to use the technique on a broader population of patients. That has increased the pressure on data scientists to create systems that can handle and analyze data on that scale fast enough for it to be clinically useful.

Health informatics, also known as bioinformatics, is the data science response to these challenges.

At Massachusetts General Hospital, a software architect and a radiologist sat down and came up with a system called QPID: Queriable Patient Interface Dossier. The system combs electronic medical records for terms entered by medical staff and looks in places they might not think to look, and for related terms they might not think to ask for. Using analytics, the system has evolved to help prevent the sort of basic errors that humans are prone to making when interacting with complex systems. It helps doctors forget the underlying technologies and focus on medical terms.

Bioinformatics remains a complex and difficult business, however. If a retail sales forecast is off in a marketing analytics report, a company may drop a couple of percentage points on the stock exchange. If a medical informatics professional blows a diagnostic screen, people can die.

An advanced education, with a master’s degree or better in the field, is considered a minimum requirement in many positions. And unlike most data science jobs, where the specificity of the degree holds little importance, in health care they are looking for data scientists who have been specifically trained in the nuances of the field.

The demand is increasing and so are the salaries. According to a 2014 report by job research firm Burning Glass, the healthcare informatics field is predicted to grow at twice the rate of expansion of the overall job market. That has been boosting salaries toward the high end of the range for data scientists, as shown for these common job titles provided by the American Health Information Management Association:

  • Health Informatics Consultant – Upper $80,000s
  • Health Informatics Director – $80,000 – $100,000
  • Chief Medical Information Officer – $100,000 – $200,000

What to Look For in a Master’s Degree in Health Informatics

You might find master’s informatics programs with a variety of different titles:

  • Master’s of Science in Healthcare Administration with Informatics Concentration
  • Master’s of Science in Biomedical Informatics
  • Master’s of Science in Applied Clinical Informatics
  • Master’s of Science in Biostatistics

What you really want to pay attention to, however, is the curriculum the program offers. Healthcare informatics requires a broad spectrum of scientific education, including:

  • Biology and biological processes
  • Healthcare terminology and systems
  • Probability and statistical theory
  • Specialized biostatistical methods
  • Programming and data mining

Find Programs Based in Hard Science, But with a Human Touch

The curriculum can also help you distinguish between bioinformatics courses aimed at clinicians or administrators from those that have a serious data science focus. At the University of Utah, for example, the Master’s in Biomedical Informatics has three tracks:

  • Applied Clinical Informatics
  • Bioinformatics
  • Data Science

While all of them offer insights and coursework in the medical uses of statistical analysis and large data sets, only the data science option includes all of the technical training  that data scientists will need to know. You may be more likely to find these elements in degree programs that are administered by computer science departments rather than medical schools.

Programs that are offered by universities associated with major teaching hospitals are some of the best options for healthcare informatics programs. The Clinical Informatics and Patient-Centered Technologies MS from the University of Washington, for example, is tied to the University of Washington School of Medicine, an organization with teaching facilities in five states, including top-ranked teaching hospitals and trauma centers. Students in the informatics program benefit from instructors who also teach in other programs at the medical school. And learning from clinicians helps reinforce the human element of health care.

Find a Program That Offers Nuts and Bolts Access to Healthcare Information Systems

Although you may be entering the field with visions of DNA base pairs dancing in your head, the reality is that you are going to be facing the crush of electronic medical records and charting. You should look for a program that introduces you to the technical, ethical, and regulatory challenges of computer-based patient records, as well as going in-depth on data security.

HIPAA compliance is becoming a major issue for medical providers. In 2016 alone, more than 25 million patient records were exposed, resulting in $24 million in settlement payments… not to mention 3 prison sentences handed down and a number of medical licenses being revoked. Compliance is serious business and no major healthcare provider wants anyone handling their data who is not well-versed in HIPAA requirements and data security.

This is also a field where specialized expertise in cutting-edge developments can pay dividends. Although there don’t yet appear to be any health informatics master’s programs offering courses in blockchain technologies, that hot new trend could be one of the possible solutions to privacy and security issues.

It’s also useful to get realistic experience with the types of medical information systems in use today. A handful of companies, like EPIC, dominate healthcare IT and databases. Understanding how their internals are structured will offer you a jump start on working on them in the field.

The curriculum of the program you choose also sets the agenda for the type of work you will be doing. Database design and SQL instruction will set you up for success in combing through medical records systems. Genomic studies and biological sciences will help you with research or sequencing work. There’s a lot of it out there, and it’s important work—being well-prepared will pay off for both you and society.