Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Department of Preventive Medicine

What is Healthcare and Biomedical Informatics?

The application of Informatics to Healthcare and Biomedical Research is so new that the name is still evolving. Founded in 1976, the main conference in the field was originally called the Symposium on Computer Applications in Medical Care (SCAMC). At that time, some people called the field "Computer Medicine". Later the term "Medical Informatics" became the dominant term with the formation of several departments and the establishment in 1989 of the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA). This was consistent with the original core of the field: doctors with computers.

However, even when the term "Medical Informatics" was being coined, there were objections. Nurses complained that "Medical = MD = doctor" and that the term excluded Nursing Informatics. As the application of informatics to biological research grew, others complained that the term "Medical" was too clinical and excluded basic science researchers. As a result, the term "Biomedical Informatics" became the dominant term during the 1990's and many departments adopted this name. This term served for roughly a decade.

In recent years, there has been considerable discussion about the need to emphasize "health" rather than "disease" within the American healthcare system. There has been a simultaneous rise in patient rights and a consumer-centric focus. The groups behind these initiatives have argued that "biomedical" is too disease-focused and that "Health Informatics" should be the dominant term. A number of departments of "Health Informatics" or "Health Information Science" have formed. Researchers in Public Health Informatics have also advocated for the term "Health Informatics". The opposition has argued that "health" is too much about the healthcare system and, like "medical", excludes basic science researchers in Bioinformatics. Other have noted that "Health Informatics" often gets lumped together with "Health Information Technology (HIT)", connoting hospital or private practice IT groups that purchase and maintain vendor systems, but who are not involved in research.

To bridge this divide, AMIA now describes the larger field as "Biomedical and Health Informatics". Other current terms for the larger domain include:

At the same time, the use of the word "medical" as in "medical center" has been decreasing and being replaced by "health sciences". Many universities now refer to their "Health Sciences Campus".

Discussions with faculty at Northwestern University and in the American College of Medical Informatics (the top honorary society in the field) made clear that "health" is the ascendant term. Whether "health" will totally replace "biomedical" in the way that "biomedical" replaced "medical" remains to be seen. That said, giving "health" the primary position in the name of the division is consistent with current trends. For this reason, we have chosen to name the division "Health and Biomedical Informatics".

There are many different subdomains within Health and Biomedical Informatics.

Hierarchy of Informatics

There are many different subdomains of informatics related to healthcare and biomedical research. The figure below is one way to arrange them.

Informatics Hierarchy

Figure 1: Hierarchy of Informatics. This diagram shows the relationships between various sub-domains of Health and Biomedical Informatics. The domains are shown as blobs rather than as discrete boxes to emphasize the high degree of overlap among the domains. This hierarchy should be considered a snapshot in time rather than a definitive final solution.