PORTLAND, Maine — A wide-ranging collaborative comprising Greater Portland businesses and nonprofits announced Wednesday it secured $50,000 in grant money to explore the growth of a health information business cluster in the area.

While so-called health informatics is not widely known and the announcement in itself may not immediately resonate with the public, city leaders said the effort represents an opportunity for Portland to position itself as something of a national capital in what’s expected to be a fast-growing industry.

“There’s no place in America known for health informatics the way, say, Hartford is known for insurance, for instance,” John Spritz, manager of the collaborative, Growing Portland, said during a Wednesday afternoon news conference at Portland City Hall.

“We looked at the health care industry and said, ‘Where are the jobs going to be coming from?’” he added. “‘Where is the industry headed?’ The answer kept on coming back: health informatics,”

The $50,000 in grant money includes $25,000 from the Maine Technology Institute and $25,000 total from MaineHealth, Maine Medical Center, the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, health care provider InterMed and information technology firm Winxnet.

Health informatics is the growing field of keeping, processing, analyzing and distributing medical records, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan explained in part.

Health informatics puts detailed information at the fingertips of doctors, nurses and hospital administrators, Brennan and others said Wednesday, allowing medical officials to make more informed decisions about individual patients and higher level financial problems alike.

While the field admittedly is a niche that members of the general public may have difficulty understanding at first, Brennan characterized the $50,000 study and public-private-nonprofit collaborative pushing to establish the industry cluster here as “historic” and “unprecedented.”

Among the higher education institutions in the Growing Portland collaborative are Southern Maine Community College, St. Joseph’s College in Standish, University of Southern Maine, University of New England and Kaplan University.

Included in the $50,000 study will be a look into what educational programs and workforce training will need to be provided in order to grow the industry locally, including the potential for new master’s and doctoral degree programs, Spritz said.

“You’ve heard about the research triangle in Massachusetts, with Harvard and MIT, and you’ve heard about the research triangle in North Carolina, with Duke, North Carolina State and University of North Carolina,” Brennan said. “This is our research triangle.”

Spritz will be the principal investigator in the study, to be titled the “Health Informatics Assessment Project,” and findings will be delivered next February or March, with support from USM’s Muskie School of Public Service.

The study will aim to determine which Maine organizations are already involved in the growing health informatics field, what potential there is for future growth and whether there is an opportunity to establish a physical or virtual health informatics industry center in Greater Portland.

Portland Chamber President Chris Hall said Maine already has a good start in establishing itself as a destination in the field. Already working in the industry in Portland are iVantage Health Analytics and HealthInfoNet, with Goold Health Systems located relatively nearby in Augusta and athenahealth Inc. in Belfast.

“We’re trying to leverage what we’ve got and turn it into a much greater economic strength,” he said.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.