Giving Data Meaning: The Wide-Open Field of Health TechnologyBy Jennifer Persons
Dr. Pamela Charney brings decades of informatics experience to MCPHS to fill a need across healthcare, harnessing data to improve patient care.
The healthcare system in the United States generates terabytes of data every day. Just one terabyte can hold the same amount of data as about eight iPhones.
“Everybody wants data, but data is meaningless until you provide it meaning, and that’s what we do,” said Pamela Charney, PhD.
Dr. Charney joined MCPHS last summer as Assistant Dean of the School of Healthcare Business and Technology. She’s focused on the “and Technology” piece of the school, developing new programs and curricula that teach students how to give meaning to the seemingly endless amount of data in the healthcare system and use it to improve patient care.
“This field is literally wide open,” Dr. Charney explained. “Anywhere there is healthcare and technology, there is a place for one of our graduates.”
An Early Adopter of Health Technology
Dr. Charney entered healthcare as a dietitian, completing most of her training as a member of the U.S. Army. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she was accepted to a competitive internship program with the Army and completed Officer Candidate School.
“A hallmark of military experience is learning to lead,” she said. “Being in the Army gave me the opportunity to take on a lot of roles that I wouldn’t have as a civilian.”
Dr. Charney worked as a dietitian at two major Army medical facilities, assisting with groundbreaking initiatives and building her research skills. She served for a decade and was a captain when she left active duty. After the Army, Dr. Charney worked in almost every area of dietetics she could while earning her first master’s and doctorate.
She shared that one of her favorite work experiences was in the early 2000s when she helped create a specialized clinic to help children with short gut syndrome—a condition in which the body cannot absorb enough nutrients from food because part of the intestine is missing or damaged—whose food intake needed to be carefully planned and monitored.
“I was taking care of kids who were highly reliant on technology for survival but still needed to be a kid,” she recalled. “We used technology to ensure everyone at home, school, and the clinic were communicating. It sparked my interest in technology and how we use the tools available to optimize care.”
In 2009, Dr. Charney was working to earn her second master’s degree—this time in informatics—when the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act became federal law. It incentivized healthcare systems to use electronic health records and health information technology meaningfully.
“That’s when I thought, this is the future. This is where we’re going. I might as well be a part of this movement.”
How to Give Data Meaning
For the last 14 years, Dr. Charney has been immersed in data, health technology, and informatics, creating two bachelor’s degrees from the ground up. She brings that experience to MCPHS where she is helping to build a portfolio of data and health technology programs of all degree levels within the School of Healthcare Business and Technology.
“To really make data meaningful, you need to know about informatics,” she explained. “Informatics, in a nutshell, is using the knowledge of healthcare to help providers work smarter, faster, and safer.”
But how does data become meaningful? Dr. Charney explained that data scientists and information technologists use the data-knowledge-wisdom pyramid.
“For example, 150 is just a number until you define it. We could say it’s 150 pounds, and we know that means weight. So, you’ve turned that piece of data into information. Then, you apply it. Is that too much weight? Too little? Is it about a person or something else? That’s knowledge. The final step is to determine how the clinician uses the data to provide or improve care. That’s wisdom.”
The new informatics and data sciences programs at MCPHS will teach students how to collect, analyze, and protect data to improve practices across healthcare and biotechnology.
“We want our students to see what their role is in improving the work of others,” Dr. Charney said. “People trained in informatics have the ability to explain why we use data and technology and how we can use them better.”
Meeting the Need for Health Technology Experts
The widespread use of electronic health records was a major step forward, but the data they generate has yet to be used to its fullest potential. Dr. Charney says healthcare systems are now recognizing it.
“In the past, if you had computer skills and wanted to help people, you could get a health information or technology job,” she explained. “Now, we’re seeing a need for people with specialized training and education.”
Dr. Charney says students who graduate from the programs at MCPHS can fill a variety of roles, from data analysts to Chief Information Officers, to help inform decisions and lead innovative ways to use technology.
“We have a system that’s overburdened for a number of reasons, and one of them is near and dear to informatics,” Dr. Charney explained. “We have electronic health records, but they drive providers crazy because they require so much work. Our role is to work with providers to improve the process, hopefully improving burnout and, ultimately, patient care.”
While the possibilities for health technology are seemingly endless, Dr. Charney hopes people who enter this field will solve some of the most complex issues facing the healthcare industry.
“I would love to look into how technology can help improve health equity and ensure that everybody has access to these tools, no matter how much money they make, where they live, or how much education they have,” she said.
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