Biomedical Informatics: Not Just About Computers

Establishing a consensus definition of biomedical informatics (BMI) is no mean feat. Historical definitions have focused on technological tools, roles of BMI scientists (informaticians), and concepts. In 2010, Bernstam and colleagues proposed that information is “data plus meaning” and that informatics is the science of information. They broadly defined BMI is “the science of information applied to, or studied in the context of biomedicine.”

In 2012, the American Medical Informatics Association defined BMI as “the interdisciplinary field that studies and pursues the effective uses of biomedical data, information, and knowledge for scientific inquiry, problem solving, and decision making, driven by efforts to improve human health” (Kulikowski). As part of this definition, the scope of BMI ranges from molecules to populations, from biological to social systems, and from basic science to clinical care. While informaticians often employ computer, telecommunication, and information systems in their work, the focus of BMI is not the hardware or software. The theories and methods of BMI are relevant to “the generation, storage, retrieval, use, management, and sharing of biomedical data, information, and knowledge” -- all in the pursuit of improving health care and health outcomes. BMI also taps into behavioral and social sciences to design and evaluate technical solutions, policies, and diverse systems.

A clearer vision of BMI emerges when we consider the sciences and application domains prominent in the training of informaticians.

Sciences relevant to BMI

BMI is a diverse discipline which draws upon and contributes to several sciences, such as:

  • Computer science
  • Information and communication sciences
  • Engineering
  • Cognitive & social sciences / humanities
  • Mathematical, statistical, and decision sciences
  • Biological & physical sciences
  • Organizational science

Application domains in BMI

Many informaticians are “cross-trained” in relevant sciences and application domains (Friedman 2013). The cross-trained informatician applies theories, methods, and processes from sciences to an application domain, giving rise to major branches or subfields of BMI listed below:

  • Health informatics, focused on individuals and populations
  • Clinical informatics, which includes the parallel subfields of medical, nursing, and dental informatics
  • Public health informatics
  • Bioinformatics and structural (or imaging) informatics, focused on molecular, cellular, and organ systems
  • Consumer health informatics
  • Translational bioinformatics
  • Clinical research informatics

Bernstam and colleagues described how informaticians act as a link between health care and computer science: “Clinicians care for patients. Informaticians develop methods for applying and/or retrieving the information needed to support effective care.

Computer scientists provide efficient algorithms to manipulate the data underlying the information.”

Fundamental theorem of BMI

Charles Friedman attempted to capture the essence of the field by expressing the fundamental theorem of BMI as “A person working in partnership with an information resource is ‘better’ than that same person unassisted.”  (Friedman 2009)

Friedman notes that the person can be a health care provider, scientist, student, administrator, or patient. The person can also be group or organization. The information resource, which is usually but not always computer-based, provides information to help the person complete a task. Whether the theorem holds true in a specific case depends upon the nature and level of interaction between the person and information resource.

Learn more about the fundamental theorem of BMI.

What it is isn’t

Friedman also proposed that the following activities, while valuable, are not considered to fall under the purview of BMI (Friedman 2013):

  • Tinkering with computers
  • Analysis of large datasets in which information technology is merely a tool
  • Health IT duties restricted to deployment and configuration of electronic health records (EHRs)
  • Health information management
  • Merely anything done with a computer

The definition and competencies for training in BMI are expected to evolve in parallel with scientific, technological, and healthcare practices


Bernstam EV et al. What is biomedical informatics? J Biomed Inform 2010;43:104e10.

Friedman CP. What informatics is and isn't. J Am Med Inform Assoc 2013;20:224-226. Accessed on August 8, 2014

Friedman CP. A “Fundamental Theorem” of Biomedical Informatics. J Am Med Inform Assoc. 2009;16:169–170. Accessed on August 8, 2014.

Kulikowski CA et al. AMIA Board white paper: definition of biomedical informatics and specification of core competencies for graduate education in the discipline. J Am Med Inform Assoc 2012;19:931-938.

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