In a fairly new specialty, the clinical informaticist at Virginia Mason combines clinical care and tech to improve patient care.

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Dr. Barry Aaronson

What do you do? My job as a clinical informaticist [at Virginia Mason Medical Center] is to help improve the quality and safety of patient care. The tools we use to accomplish that work are computer systems, software and leveraging our very skilled information technology team members. Since I am a physician and an informaticist, I can successfully bridge the two very different worlds of clinical care and computer technology to improve care for our patients.

How did you get started in that field? I got started by signing up to work on the various committees within our organization that address informatics/IT issues. When I realized I wanted to devote a significant portion of my career to this work, I completed a National Library of Medicine-funded Clinical Informatics Fellowship at the University of Washington, then became board certified in the newest medical specialty of clinical informatics.

What’s a typical day like? A typical day means a lot of interesting and sometimes very complex conversations with a lot of very smart people in a wide variety of disciplines (nurses, pharmacists, programmers, other medical providers, administrators) about how to use our health information technology to improve patient care and safety.

What surprises people about what you do? It surprises people that most of our work is not directly focused on technical or computer/software-related issues, but instead involves understanding clinical workflows to identify waste and opportunities for error. Only when we really understand those operational issues can we design computerized solutions to improve the process. If we skip that step and just throw technology at a problem, we end up automating wasteful processes and accomplishing very little.

What’s the best part of the job? As a physician, I have the opportunity to help individual patients, which is rewarding. But as a clinical informaticist, I also have the opportunity to improve the systems that hundreds of providers use to care for tens of thousands of patients. It is very gratifying when the work we do makes a difference on that grand of a scale.

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