Monday, May 23, 2011

Physician Certification in Informatics

I am frequently asked about the status of certification of physicians in informatics. I did touch on this topic briefly in my posting on informatics opportunities for physicians last fall, but let me address the question of certification in more detail in this posting.

The motivation for physician certification in informatics is to recognize the growing stature and need for professional expertise of physicians who spend a significant amount of their time performing informatics-related duties. This includes not only the growing role of the Chief Medical Informatics Officer (CMIO), but other jobs where a physician draws on his or her expertise at the intersection of medicine and informatics.

The "gold standard" for any type of certification of physicians is board certification. There are currently 24 specialty boards (e.g., internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics, surgery, radiology, preventive medicine, etc.), most of which have subspecialty boards as well (e.g., cardiology, hematology/oncology, and general internal medicine in internal medicine). Some subspecialties, such as geriatrics and palliative medicine, are offered by more than one specialty board. This will be the model for the clinical informatics subspecialty, and in fact the goal will be for it to be offered by all 24 specialty boards.

A comprehensive overview of the rationale and plan for developing the clinical informatics subspecialty was published in early 2010 by Detmer et al. [1]. This paper described the development of medical specialties and subspecialties generally and in the context of the new proposed subspecialty of clinical informatics. A more recent overview of the status board specialties was published last year and included mention of the proposed one for clinical informatics [2].

The proposal to establish the clinical informatics subspecialty was developed by the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) and submitted to the ABMS in 2010. The lead board submitting the proposal was the American Board of Preventive Medicine (ABPM), which has since been joined by the American Board of Pathology. The proposal had its first "reading" in early 2011, with a second reading and possible vote coming in September, 2011.

Certification in clinical informatics will work like any other multi-board subspecialty. To become certified, a physician will need to meet certain training requirements and then pass a certification exam. In the early years (usually the first five years of a specialty's existence), those with a certain level of experience will be able to "grandfather" in on the training requirements in a "practice track" and certify by passing the exam only. Those training after the initial practice track period will be required to complete some sort of fellowship in the specialty. The practice track requirements for clinical informatics will be determined after the ABMS approves the subspecialty and will likely apply to those with some defined level of time and depth of experience in clinical informatics settings.

If the ABMS proposal is approved, the ABPM will begin development of a certification exam, which will likely become available in the fall of 2012 for those meeting the practice track requirements. The next step will be to define the requirements for clinical fellowships in clinical informatics and their accreditation by the Accreditation Committee for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), which accredits residency and specialty fellowship training programs.

Papers published in JAMIA in 2009 laid out the details of the core curriculum [3] and training requirements [4] for the subspecialty. These were developed over a two-year process, funded by a grant to AMIA in 2007 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Two task forces were convened to address the core curriculum and training requirements. (I was a member of the latter.) These task forces led to the ABMS proposal that is currently under review.

Even though the process for establishing the subspecialty is well-defined, a number of questions remain. One question is how many healthcare organizations and others will require their physician-informatician practitioners to be certified. Another question, very critical to academic informatics units, is what will be the role for formal didactic education, especially that offered by distance learning. Programs such as ours at OHSU have been a popular vehicle for physicians and others to become informatics practitioners. The distance learning aspect has been especially valuable, as many clinicians enter informatics careers after they have established their clinical careers. The graduate-level education approach has been validated by the strong uptake of these programs as well as the more recent funding for them though the Office of National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) University-Based Training (UBT) Program, including the OHSU offering. I am hopeful that ACGME will adopt flexibility in the clinical informatics fellowship program educational programs, including possibly allowing organizations like OHSU to provide the coursework portion of the training requirements in settings where a large educational infrastructure is not available.

Professional recognition is important for any discipline, especially within medicine. This includes the growing number of informatics practitioners. Within medicine, the best approach to professional recognition is formal board certification. To that end, I look forward to seeing the specialty approach develop and thrive. As I am personally still board-certified in internal medicine, I hope to be able to become subcertified in clinical informatics myself.


[1] Detmer, D., Munger, B., et al. (2010). Clinical informatics board certification: history, current status, and predicted impact on the medical informatics workforce. Applied Clinical Informatics, 1: 11-18.
[2] Cassel, C. and Reuben, D. (2011). Specialization, subspecialization, and subsubspecialization in internal medicine. New England Journal of Medicine, 364: 1169-1173.
[3] 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.
[4] 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.


  1. Very nice post Dr. Hersh. I am looking forward to be board certified in medical informatics as well.

  2. Thanks, Tariq. Although the name of the subspecialty will be Clinical Informatics.

  3. Good news Bill, I think that would be very interesting to see how academic centers that actually are offering medical informatics programs are integrated to the training of physician in this new sub-specialty. In Argentina we have a residency program in clinical informatics; it has now more than 10 years of training physicians in the field [1]. There aren’t many programs with these characteristics globally, and will be intriguing how it will work here.



    [1] Gonzalez Bernaldo de Quiros F, Luna D, Otero P, Baum A, Borbolla D. Spreading knowledge in medical informatics: the contribution of the Hospital Italiano de
    Buenos Aires. Yearb Med Inform. 2009:147-52. PubMed PMID: 19855888.