Information Theory in Health Informatics

Contemporary information theory has its roots in the development of telephony. During the middle of last century, an engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Dr. Claude E. Shannon, innovated information theory by extending the mathematical observations of Boltzmann, Szilard, von Neumann, and Wiener in the area of physics, quantum mechanics, and particle physics (Weaver, 1949). Dr. Shannon, however, applied the theory to communication technology, introducing entropy to the theory (Nelson, 2002; Weaver, 1949).

Weaver, who worked at the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, adopted Shannon’s technical message transmission observations and adapted them with his understanding of the semantics of a messages meaning (as cited in Nelson, 2002). Shannon and Weaver’s Information and Communication Model details both the components of a message and the requirements of delivery. An example, as it would relate to health care informatics, would be when a nurse charts a patient’s medical history by encoding it via a desktop client application and the same data is viewable by the same nurse at other computer terminals, other nurses, and the treating physician. The data is also stored along the communication pathway for future retrieval and delivery when the patient presented again. Though this example satisfies Shannon, if the intended recipient were blind, the information shown on a computer screen would be meaningless, according to Weaver, and would indicate a limitation to overcome.

Evaluating hospital information systems developed, in part, from the Shannon and Weaver model, Bruce I. Blum (1986) conducted analysis of object (data, information, and knowledge) processing in both hospital and ambulatory care settings. He concluded that system designs should reflect the artificial delineation between these three types of objects and that these systems will benefit practitioners and patients by improving the overall health care process. Blum (1986) called for the “integration of existing systems with medical knowledge and knowledge-based paradigms” (p. 797) in order to have a positive impact on health care delivery in the coming decades.

Information theory is concerned with the adaptability of a message through a particular channel for optimum transmission. In health informatics, as Blum (1986) points out, information theory can be a benefit by improving “[1)] structure — the capacity of the facilities and the capacity and qualification of the personnel and organization, [2)] process — the changes in the volume, cost and appropriateness of activities, [and 3)] outcome — the change in health care status attributed to the object being evaluated” (p. 794). The major challenges, however, would be initial implementation and acceptance (Blum, 1986).


Blum, B. I. (1986). Clinical information systems. The Western Journal of Medicine, 145(6), 791-797. Retrieved from westjmed00160-0055.pdf

Nelson, R. (2002). Major theories supporting health care informatics. In S. P. Englebardt & R. Nelson (Eds.), Health care informatics: An interdisciplinary approach (pp. 3-27). St. Louis, MO: Mosby.

Weaver, W. (1949, September). Recent contributions to the mathematical theory of communication. Retrieved from weaver/weaver.pdf