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Basic concepts in medical informatics

Basic concepts in medical informatics

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J. Epidemiol. Community Health
\ue000J C Wyatt and J L Y Liu
\ue000Basic concepts in medical informatics
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Basic concepts in medical informatics
J C Wyatt, J L Y Liu
J Epidemiol Community Health2002;56:808\u2013812

This glossary defines terms used in the comparatively
young science of medical informatics. It is hoped that it
will be of interest to both novices and professionals in
the field.

edical informatics is the study and appli-
cation of methods to improve the man-

agement of patient data, clinical knowl- edge, population data, and other information relevant to patient care and community health. It is a young science, which emerged in the decades after the invention of the digital computer in the 1940s. Mechanical computing in medicine had a much earlier origin, in the 19th century, with Herman


data- processing system\u201d originally used for the US census and subsequently developed to support surveys in public health and epidemiology.1This example re\ufb02ects the multidisciplinary nature of medical informatics, which interacts with various \ufb01elds, including the clinical sciences, the public health sciences (for example, epidemiology and health services research) as well as cognitive, computing, and information sciences.

Given the diversity of backgrounds of medical informatics workers, newcomers can easily be confused by the jargon used in the \ufb01eld. An intro- duction to basic concepts would therefore be use- ful to those interested in learning more about medical informatics. In recent years, various branches of the discipline have appeared, includ- ing public health informatics, consumer health informatics, and clinical informatics. In a debate on whether medical informatics and these branches are distinct disciplines, Shortliffe and Ozbolt argued that \u201cinformatics is built on a re-usable and widely applicable set of methods that are common to all health science disciplines, and that \u2018medical informatics\u2019 continues to be a useful name for a composite core discipline that should be studied by all students, regardless of their health profession orientation.\u201d2 3Our de\ufb01ni- tions of the various branches of medical infor- matics below re\ufb02ect this.

One or more of the following criteria were used
to select terms included in this list of concepts:
\u2022The term is likely to be novel to epidemiologists
and public health professionals.
\u2022An existing word may have a widely accepted
meaning but is used in a speci\ufb01c way in the
medical informatics \ufb01eld.
\u2022The term is relevant to epidemiology and pub-
lic health.
\u2022It is essential to understanding medical infor-
\u2022It is enduring\u2014that is, not about some
transient technology.
\u2022There is general agreement on what the term
means and how it is used.
\u2022There is value in attempting to de\ufb01ne the term,
even though there may be debate about it.

We trust this list of terms will be informative for novices and encourage discussion among medical informatics professionals, particularly on terms for which there is no widespread agree- ment*. For readers who are interested in pursuing the subject further, additional resources are cited at the end of the list.


A process for carrying out a complex task broken down into simple decision and action steps. Often assists therequirements analysis process carried out before programming.

The use ofmedical informatics methods to facilitate
research in molecular biology.

A type ofclinical decision tool: a form listing one or more items ofpatient data to be collected before, during or after an encounter; can be paper or computer based.


A limited list of preferred terms from which the user can draw one or more to express a concept such aspatient data, a disease or drug name, etc. An alphanumeric code corresponding to the term is then stored by the computer. Synonyms or close matches to each preferred term are usually avail- able and map onto the same internal codes. This approach makes it easier for a computer to analyse data than the use of free text words or phrases. Examples of clinical coding systems include SNOMED-CT (divergent codes used to capturepatient data), MeSH (terms used to index biomedical literature) and ICD-10 (convergent disease codes for international comparisons, with speci\ufb01c rules to guide coders). Clinical coding systems play a key part in epidemiological studies and health service research, from the use of MeSH terms to conduct literature searches for systematic reviews to studies that use ICD codes to classify and compare diseases. To prevent information loss, it is vital that the terms and


* Notes to the list of concepts:Italic means \u201csee also\u201d. Synonyms are mentioned in parentheses, after the core term.

See end of article for
authors\u2019 affiliations

Correspondence to:
Professor J CWyatt,
Department of Medical
Informatics, Academic
Medical Centre, University
of Amsterdam,

on 21 November 2006
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codes are never changed or dropped, only added to. Obsolete terms can be marked as such to deter inappropriate use. Con- tinuing maintenance is needed to incorporate new terms and codes for new concepts and synonyms as they arise.

Any information system concerned with the capture, process-
ing, or communication ofpatient data.4

Any mechanical, paper, or electronic aid that collects or proc- esses data from an individual patient to generate output that aids clinical decisions during the doctor-patient encounter.5 Examples includedecision support systems, paper or computer

remindersand checklists, which are potentially useful tools in
public health informatics, as well as other branches of medical
Organisedpatient data ormedical knowledge used to make clini-
cal decisions (adapted from Shortliffeet al6); may also include
directory information.Many activities in public health and

epidemiology (for example, surveillance systems, cohort stud- ies to assess the effects of a risk factor of disease, and clinical trials to estimate ef\ufb01cacies of new treatments) entail the organisation of such data (for example, case report forms for individual patients) into useable information (for example, incidence of noti\ufb01able cases of disease from surveillance pro- grammes and summary evidence from cohort studies or clini- cal trials, expressed as odds ratios for certain harmful and bene\ufb01cial outcomes). See also:information.


The use ofmedical informatics methods to aid management of patients using an interdisciplinary approach, including the clinical and information sciences.6


The exchange ofinformation between agents (human or auto- mated) face to face or using paper or electronic media.7 Requires the use of a shared language and understanding or common ground.

The use of computer techniques to assist in the interpretation
of images, such as mammograms.

The policies restricting access to a person\u2019s data to those whom the patient agrees need access to them, except rarely in emer- gency and for the public good (for example, to contain epidemics, allow important research to be undertaken, or solve serious crime). In addition, other regulatory and institu- tional approval may be needed (for example, the need to seek consent from medical ethics committees or relevant national authorities). In recent years, leading public health researchers have warned that legislation enacted to protect patients\u2019 medical data in the UK, Europe, and US could potentially hamper observational research and medical record linkage studies.8 9


The use ofmedical informatics methods to facilitate the study and development of paper or electronic systems that support public access to and use of health and lifestyle information. For additional discussion on the scope of consumer health informatics, see Eysenbach.10See alsoeHealth.


The degree to which data items are accurate, complete, relevant, timely, suf\ufb01ciently detailed, appropriately repre- sented (for example, consistently coded using aclinical coding

system), and retain suf\ufb01cient contextual information to
support decision making.

A collection of data in machine readable format organised so that it can be retrieved or processed automatically by compu- ter. A \ufb02at \ufb01le database is organised like a card \ufb01le, with many records (cards) each including one or more \ufb01elds (data items). A relational database is organised as one or more related tables, each containing columns and rows. Data are organised in a database according to a schema or data model; some items are often coded using aclinical coding system.


A type ofclinical decision tool: a computer system that uses two or more items ofpatient data to generate case speci\ufb01c or encounter speci\ufb01c advice.11Examples include computer risk assessors to estimate cardiovascular disease risk12and the Leeds Acute Abdominal Pain system, which aided the diagno- sis of conditions causing such pain.13Evidence adaptive deci- sion support systems are a type of decision aid with a knowl- edge base that is constructed from and continually adapts to new research based and practice based evidence.14


A way to model a complex decision process as a tree with branches representing all possible intermediate states or \ufb01nal outcomes of an event. The probabilities of each intermediate state or \ufb01nal outcome and the perceived utilities of each are combined to attach expected utilities to each outcome. The science of drawing decision trees and assessing utilities is called decision analysis.


Study that establishes a relation\u2014which may be associational or causal\u2014between a set of measured variables. In epidemiol- ogy, cohort studies, randomised trials, and blind comparisons of a test with a gold standard are typical demonstration studies.6 15See alsomeasurement studies.

Informationspeci\ufb01c to an organisation or service that is useful

in managing public health services, health care services, or patients. Examples include a phone directory, a lab handbook listing available tests and specimens to use, and a list of drugs in the local formulary.


The use of internet technology by the public, health workers, and others to access health and lifestyle information, services and support; it encompassestelemedicine,telecare, etc. For discussion on the scope and security issues of eHealth, see a recent report by the National HealthKey Collaborative.16

In the UK, the lifelong summary of a person\u2019s health episodes,
assembled from summaries of individualelectronic patient
recordsand other relevant data.17
A computer basedclinical data system designed to replace paper
patient records.
Medical informatics
on 21 November 2006
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