LII:Clinical, Health, and Scientific Informatics Programs in Higher Education/Terminology and Programs

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Terminology and academic programs

X + “informatics”: Working with terminology

“One of the biggest challenges for the field of informatics is the variability in the word(s) that precede informatics,” begins the Oregon Health & Science University’s Department of Medical Informatics and Clinical Epidemiology. “But all of them refer to the field that is concerned with the optimal use of information,” they continue, “often aided by the use of technology, to improve individual health, health care, public health, and biomedical research.”[1]

When choosing an informatics-related domain to academically and professionally immerse yourself in, making sense of all the names can be a bit of a mess. Some universities may label their program “biomedical informatics,” others “clinical informatics” or even “health informatics.” But what are the differences, if any?

Biomedical, clinical, and health informatics as an example

Nadia Kobryn of Danylo Halytsky Lviv National Medical University addressed this terminology issue in a 2015 paper published in the journal ‘’Comparative Professional Pedagogy’’. In her paper, she notes, for example, the term “biomedical informatics” appeared in the 1990s as an extension of the term “medical informatics.” [2]

I recommend reading her brief paper, which is included in this guide, to gain a better perspective of the different terminologies and how they’ve evolved in the English-speaking world. Her conclusions about “biomedical informatics” being largely U.S.-based and “health informatics” the preference of Canada may be questionable; a tabular look at available programs easily shows regardless of location “health informatics” is much more preferred to “biomedical” or “clinical informatics” by universities today.

What seems more likely is that “biomedical informatics” as a term was more heavily used just before and after the turn of the century, but “health informatics” has become more prevalent to describe higher education programs geared towards understanding and applying “the optimal use of information, often aided by the use of technology, to improve individual health, health care, public health, and biomedical research.”[3]

Generally speaking, however, medical and biomedical informatics academic programs tend to be more research-oriented, whereas health informatics programs tend to be oriented more towards practical healthcare setting application. (For more on the comparison of biomedical informatics and bioinformatics, see the next section.)

Notes on academic informatics programs

Here are a few more notes about academic programs in the science and health informatics spectrum.


Spotting the differences between “bioinformatics” and “biomedical informatics” programs can be a challenge. For example, Stanford’s School of Medicine says this about their biomedical informatics program: “Our mission is to train future research leaders to design and implement novel quantitative and computational methods that solve challenging problems across the entire spectrum of biology and medicine.”[4] Given our previous look at biomedical informatics and a modern definition of bioinformatics that deals with computational applications in the genomic and molecular fields, Stanford’s mission statement isn’t exactly clear whether they’re talking about clinical or research-based applications of their degrees. It’s not until we look at a description of their Ph.D. program that we see it’s tending more towards the practical clinical side:

“In contrast to the other computational/quantitative programs, BMI focuses more on informatics issues of knowledge representation and reasoning, data mining and analysis, and machine learning, while in contrast to the Biosciences programs, BMI places greater emphasis on method development and evaluation than on basic science.”[5]

However, the waters may get muddied. Columbia University’s Department of Biomedical Informatics takes a more complicated approach towards defining biomedical informatics. It’s “About DBMI” page includes a graphic and description that merges computational biology, clinical informatics, and public health informatics. They even state “[a] biomedical informatics scientist might develop the tools to elucidate the function of proteins by leveraging computational and statistical methods inspired by natural language processing, machine learning, knowledge engineering, and biostatistics.”[6] This description all seems very much like what a bioinformatics professional would do, making the distinction between biomedical informatics and bioinformatics less clear. The web can become even more tangled as some scientists and teachers such as Stanford’s Russ Altman further separate the computational aspects out from the problem solving and engineering of bioinformatics.[7]

All of this is to say that in a more perfect world we’d have clearer, more consistent terminology. The internet has countless examples of potential students asking what the difference between the discipline terminology is. The general rule of thumb is while there may be significant overlap in university bioinformatics and biomedical informatics programs, bioinformatics programs tend to focus more on the science and computational/quantitative aspects of problem solving for improved health outcomes. However, due to a lack of consistency in the academic and scientific realms, these terms sometimes appear to be used interchangeably. For this guide, an attempt has been made to keep bioinformatics and computational biology programs under the “bioinformatics” category and programs labeled "biomedical informatics" together in another grouping. In other words, this guide lumps programs using the same label together. However, keep in mind that some biomedical informatics programs lean closer to the computational side than others.

To close, the best thing you can do as an aspiring student when gauging academic programs labeled as “bioinformatics” and “biomedical informatics” is to thoroughly read descriptions online and contact faculty within the programs. Ask them questions and better clarify their department’s policy and approach. This guide aims to classify and organize these programs effectively, but in the end, it’s your responsibility to ensure the program(s) you’re considering meet your needs and expectations. A list of higher education facilities with programs labeled “biomedical informatics” will be included in this guide, allowing readers to research and make their own judgments.

Chemical informatics

From an academic program perspective, it’s useful to look at chemical informatics (also referred to as chemoinformatics and cheminformatics) as a sub-domain of bioinformatics. Universities such as Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Indiana University, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, and University of Sheffield began to offer chemical informatics programs at the turn of the century.[8][9] However, many of those programs were discontinued or absorbed into a bioinformatics program. Universität Hamburg—which today has a chemical informatics specialty track within its bioinformatics masters degree program[10]—clarifies the transition fairly well with its original program description from 2015[11]:

“A joint study programme for bio- and chemoinformatics was established at the ZBH for very good reasons. Firstly, chemoinformatics is widely applied in the life sciences. One needs a good knowledge of (molecular) biology / biochemistry as well as bioinformatics for a career in chemoinformatics.”[11]

As such, it seems the handful of chemical informatics academic programs today is more often than not tied to a bioinformatics department, institute, or program. Today, however, degree-granting options directly tied to chemical informatics are limited at best.

Nursing informatics

At first glance, nursing informatics programs may appear to have significant commonality with health informatics programs and vice versa. In fact, nursing informatics is essentially the result of the nursing industry developing a more consistent educational profile and qualifications within the realm of health informatics.[12] However, a few differences exist. Primary among them is that health (or healthcare) informatics tends to be “business facing” or focused on the administrative side, whereas nursing informatics tends to be “patient facing” or focused on the patient and the care they receive.[13] Health informaticists are often—but not always—managers or administrators “responsible for bridging the gap between health care professionals and data processors”[14] while coordinating informatics infrastructure development and ensuring regulatory compliance of systems.[13] Nurse informaticists can share some of those same responsibilities but tend to focus on how informatics and clinical workflows work together to improve the quality of care — and safety — of patient treatments and outcomes.[13][12]

In the field of higher education, programs labeled as “nursing informatics” tend to take two common paths: a nursing master’s program or certificate program. Much less common is the doctoral program in nursing informatics; in fact, only three such programs could be found via online search. Also of note: all nursing informatics programs found originate from U.S. higher education facilities.

Laboratory informatics

Laboratory informatics isn’t a “marketed” field of study in higher education facilities, likely due to its rather broad connotations. In truth, today the term “laboratory informatics” involves the management and improvement of technologies that help laboratory personnel better do their jobs, particularly technology related to information processing and communication. [15]

But the laboratory, in all its variations, is found in numerous subdomains, from clinical environments to chemical research institutes, from mining facilities to water treatment plants. As data collection, management, processing, and mining technology has advanced—at times quite rapidly—in particular fields, a need for people better able to develop and utilize the next generation of technologies grows more important. Higher education endeavors to help fill that need.

The connection between university and industry may not be obvious to everyone, but it certainly exists; a journal dedicated to the university-business relationship has existed for decades.[16] Higher education attempts to look at trends in industry and fill educational gaps when they arise through the development, certification, and implementation of undergraduate, graduate, certificate, professional, and post-secondary programs. It shouldn’t, therefore, be a surprise to see higher education facilities market their programs on industry trends and reports. Today we see health informatics and bioinformatics programs as an end result.

All of this is to say that “laboratory informatics” is a broad term, covering many laboratory types. A university isn’t likely to create academic programs based on such a broad topic. Instead, we see industry- and demand-driven informatics programs in burgeoning fields such as healthcare and the biological sciences. That’s not to say that laboratory informatics isn’t being addressed in higher education; individual courses on medical, clinical, research, and forensic laboratory science are likely to discuss the role of information technology in those types of labs.

Imaging informatics and pharmacy informatics

The subdomains of imaging informatics and pharmacy informatics and their associated higher education programs will be addressed in a future expansion of this guide.


  1. "What is Biomedical Informatics?". Oregon Health & Science University. 2020. Retrieved 08 February 2022. 
  2. Kobryn, N. (2015). "Medical informatics specialty in the developed English-speaking countries: The terminology comparative analysis". Comparative Professional Pedagogy 5 (1): 86–91. doi:10.1515/rpp-2015-0026. 
  3. Hersh, W. R. (2009). "A Stimulus to Define Informatics and Health Information Technology". BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making 9 (24): 6. doi:10.1186/1472-6947-9-24. 
  4. "Stanford Medicine Biomedical Informatics". Stanford University School of Medicine. 2022. Retrieved 08 February 2022. 
  5. "The PhD Degree in Biomedical Informatics". Stanford University School of Medicine. 2022. Retrieved 08 February 2022. 
  6. "About DBMI". Columbia University. 2016. Archived from the original on 21 June 2019. Retrieved 08 February 2022. 
  7. Altman, R. (18 February 2009). "Bioinformatics & Computational Biology = Same? No.". Retrieved 08 February 2022. 
  8. Gasteiger, J.; Engel, T., ed. (2006). "Databases and Data Sources in Chemistry". Chemoinformatics: A Textbook. Wiley-VCH. p. 273. ISBN 9783527606504. Retrieved 15 December 2016. 
  9. Gillet, V. (2002). "Recent Developments in Chemoinformatics Education" (PDF). Royal Society of Chemistry. pp. 26. Retrieved 08 February 2022. 
  10. "Master Bioinformatics". Universität Hamburg. Retrieved 08 February 2022. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 "What is Cheminformatics?". Zentrum für Bioinformatik. Universität Hamburg. 2 June 2015. Archived from the original on 12 November 2017. Retrieved 08 February 2022. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 Nelson, R.; Staggers, N. (2014). "Introduction: The Evolution of Health Informatics". Health Informatics: An Interprofessional Approach. Elsevier Health Sciences. pp. 9–12. ISBN 9780323100953. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 "The Difference Between Health Care and Nursing Informatics". Capella University Blog. Capella University. 24 September 2018. Retrieved 08 February 2022. 
  14. "Health Informatics vs. Nursing Informatics: Which Degree Program is Right for You?". Inside UOnline. University of Miami. 14 April 2016. Archived from the original on 14 August 2016. Retrieved 08 February 2022. 
  15. Cowan, Daniel, ed. (2002). Informatics for the Clinical Laboratory: A Practical Guide (1st ed.). Springer. pp. 9–10. ISBN 9780387244495. 
  16. "Industry & Higher Education". SAGE Publications. Retrieved 08 February 2022.