The current issue of Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association (JAMIA, March-April, 2009) contains several papers related to a process the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) is spearheading to establish a medical board sub-certification in clinical informatics (Detmer et al., 2009). I myself was involved in the training requirements paper that will be submitted (Gardner et al., 2009), along with the core curriculum (Safran et al., 2009), to the American Board of Medical Specialties. I note that the core curriculum looks a great deal like the OHSU medical informatics track curriculum of our biomedical informatics graduate program.
As AMIA is not a physician-only organization, another process is underway to establish certification for non-physician doctoral-level certification in clinical informatics. This will include doctoral-level health care professionals (e.g., those with PharmD, DNP, DPT, etc. degrees) as well as those with PhD degrees. At the same time, the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM), which certifies health information management professionals, has announced plans to establish a master's-level credential in health informatics.
What does all of this mean? First, it is important to understand the terminology. Certification applies to individuals, who obtain a credential that certifies their knowledge and skills to perform certain professional tasks, e.g., board certification of physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals as well as in other fields, such as a certified professional accountant (CPA). This is different from accreditation, which applies to educational programs and declares them capable of providing the training of individuals to attain certification. Sometimes programs are accredited without a corresponding formal certification, such as academic programs in public health and computer science.
Certification is usually applied to people in professional positions. It is not usually applied to those who are in academic or research settings. So while a Department of Medicine in a medical school may have its clinical faculty certified to practice medicine, it does not have corresponding certification for its research faculty (or for the non-practicing portion of the jobs of clinical faculty). Certification usually indicates that one has a competency to carry out a professional task, such as practicing medicine. In the case of informatics would most likely apply to those who work in operational settings, such as hospitals, clinics, health centers, and the like.
Certification would add some order to a field now where anyone can call themselves an informatician or offer an academic program. Indeed, there are a growing number of four-year colleges and even community colleges that are beginning to offer baccalaureate and associate degrees in the field. Of course, without a formal certification in informatics, there is no reason why they cannot. However, my own view is that informatics is the synergistic and unique intersection of health sciences, computer sciences, and management sciences, and as such, is difficult to impart with just a baccalaureate or associate degree. This does not mean that those individuals cannot work in health care settings, but rather that to truly do informatics professionally requires a level of training that combines expertise in multiple disciplines, and it is difficult to see how it can be imparted without some amount of graduate study.
Another challenge with certification will depend on how the training requirements are implemented. As many reading this know, I direct one of the largest academic informatics programs in the country, and its distance learning option has been extremely popular and successful. While I do believe that informatics expertise requires real-world experience, we have been able to provide that for those who have sought it in their education. Whatever on-site training requirements emerge, I do hope the educational and/or fellowship experience will allow sufficient flexibility for didactic coursework to be on-line and for hands-on training experience to be available in diverse settings and not necessarily just the sites of academic programs.
The implementation of certification and accreditation will bring a new level of maturity to our field. It will allow informatics professionals to gain the recognition of the important role they play in health and health care organizations. But hopefully it will be implemented in a way that maintains the intellectual, geographical, and other forms of diversity that exist in our field.
Detmer, D., Lumpkin, J., et al. (2009). Defining the medical subspecialty of clinical informatics. Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, 16: 167-168.
Gardner, R., Overhage, J., et al. (2009). Core content for the subspecialty of clinical informatics. Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, 16: 153-157.
Safran, C., Shabot, M., et al. (2009). ACGME program requirements for fellowship education in the subspecialty of clinical informatics. Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, 16: 158-166.