Recently, many of you have experienced or contributed to your organization’s system upgrade or system conversion. Some of you might have received short-term training to serve as a “super user” or a “trainer” and helped your colleagues transition to the new system. Do you have an aptitude for information technology (IT)? Would you like to help transform health care and bridge the gap between IT and nursing practice? If so, consider a career in nursing informatics.
Integration of science and nursing
According to the American Nurses Association (ANA), nursing informatics “integrates nursing science, computer science, and information science to manage and communicate data, information, knowledge, and wisdom in nursing practice.” Registered nurses who come into the field by way of on-the-job training or continuing education are called informatics nurses (INs). Nurses with formal graduate-level education (for example, a master’s degree [MS], post-MS certificate, or doctoral degree [DNP or PhD]) in informatics or an informatics-related field, such as biomedical or health informatics or information management, are called informatics nurse specialists (INSs). Both are helping transform health care by providing essential information to students, educators, clinicians, consumers, administrators, scientists, and policymakers when and where they need it.
Although many nurses got their start in informatics through on-the-job training or continuing education, the increasing complexity of the field and the demanding performance standards of today’s workplaces make formal education increasingly important. To practice nursing informatics as an expert, you need to study at the postgraduate level. Currently, we see many INSs return to school for their post-MS DNP. These are the professionals whose career goals include higher-level nursing informatics executive positions, such as directors in health IT divisions or chief-informatics officers.
Want to know more? Here’s an overview of five key specialty areas: clinical informatics, consumer-health informatics, public-health informatics, educational informatics, and research in nursing informatics.
Most nurses in informatics take jobs that draw directly on their clinical backgrounds as well as their organizational skills and informatics knowledge. Within this area, nurses may choose applied/professional roles, which focus on the technical aspects of development and evaluation of systems, or expert/liaison roles, which focus on clinical workflows, systems’ functional requirements for clinicians and patients, system selection, system testing, health IT education of staff, and implementation/optimization. In either role, INs and INSs can help bring clinical practice and IT together, improve patient care, make the value of nursing more visible, reduce the burden of paperwork, and improve communication among members of interdisciplinary teams. Positions include
- clinical informatics system analyst,
- application analyst,
- informatics nurse,
- health IT team leader,
- manager or director of a clinical, nursing, or health IT department, and
- chief informatics officer.
With the current emphasis on value-based care, patient-centered care, and self-management, consumer-health informatics is expanding rapidly to empower and engage patients in their own care using health IT. One example is the use of patient portals.
Nurses working in consumer-health informatics focus on assessing patients and their caregivers’ needs for health information, conducting research on how to meet consumers’ needs for health information, aiding self-management of health and illness, and integrating consumers’ preferences into information systems. Some of the areas where INs and INSs develop and improve consumer health systems include
- eHealth – use of information and communication technologies (ICT) to monitor patients’ conditions and deliver health interventions remotely using a variety of health information technology products and services (for example, remote diabetes management services and monitoring health using wearable devices),
- mHealth – use of mobile devices to monitor patients’ conditions and deliver health interventions remotely (for example, health apps),
- vendors – health IT companies that develop patient/caregiver-focused programs, and
- policies and health advocacies — federal agencies that develop policies-related consumer informatics.
Nurses in public health informatics apply health IT programs in areas of public health, including surveillance, community-based programs to promote health and to prevent diseases, and disaster preparedness. INs and INSs who develop and improve systems in public-health informatics may work in the following areas:
- developing a public-health information network to share information among state and local public-health organizations,
- applying geographic information system (GIS) and health analytics to monitor health outbreaks,
- assisting state and federal health agencies to develop an information exchange service for public and private healthcare providers at the regional level, and
- developing disaster management programs and training healthcare workers.
Teaching is an important aspect of the nursing informatics profession. Recently, informatics became an essential component for all levels of nursing education, and staff training for health IT programs is a vital success factor in system implementation. The INs and INSs who focus on education develop, select, implement, and evaluate learning resources for consumers or healthcare professionals. Many informatics nurses and specialists enjoy supporting clinical staff and students to use health IT systems effectively. They may work in the following areas:
- academia, serving as a faculty members;
- healthcare organizations, where they specialize in developing innovative and efficient training programs and providing education in classroom settings and point-of-care areas. They also ensure health IT competency of the staff within organizations.
Health IT is an area that changes and advances rapidly and many enterprise health IT systems cost hospitals millions of dollars. Research and development has become a vital area for vendors, and hospitals must assess outcomes of health IT programs. The INSs who are prepared at the graduate level are well positioned to lead these efforts. Many healthcare organizations demand at least a master’s degree for most managerial positions, so experienced health IT professionals are seeking a higher-degree.
Gaining the skills you need
Various healthcare and nursing informatics programs are available for nurses, with each program having different strengths. If you are considering formal education, you will want to find a program that fits with your career goals.
The INSs who already have a master’s degree may consider a doctoral degree (DNP or PhD) to develop their careers further, including such positions as chief nursing informatics officers and vice-presidents in health IT areas. These individuals also can use their informatics knowledge and skillsets to develop standards for representing data, information, and knowledge in information systems; develop methods of decision support for nurses; investigate new technologies to support nursing processes; and advance knowledge about how nurses use and communicate data, information, and knowledge. Using health IT, INSs can be a major driving force to improve quality and safety of patient care with reduced cost.
If you choose informatics as a career, you will be introducing changes to the way people work, think, learn, and live. Making improvements is satisfying, but remember that people and systems tend to resist change. Informatics nurses and specialists need a high tolerance for uncertainty, strong organizational and management skills, and knowledge of and abilities in interpersonal and organizational dynamics. A sense of humor helps, too, as is remembering that the rewards for this exciting specialty are great!
Eun-Shim Nahm is program director for nursing informatics at the University of Maryland School of Nursing in Baltimore. This article has its roots in “How about a career in nursing informatics,” by Nahm; Judy Ozbolt, PhD, RN, FAAN, FACMI, FAIMBE; Darryl Roberts, MS, RN; and Marisa Wilson, DNSc, RN, published in American Nurse Today, September 2007.
American Nurses Association. Nursing Informatics: Scope and Standards of Practice. Washington, DC: American Nurses Association; 2015.
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