The American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) estimates that up to 70,000 health informatics specialists will be needed in the next several years - making it safe to say that health information technology (HIT) is one of the fastest growing specializations in the healthcare industry today.
For nurses looking to specialize, informatics is a career choice that can put them ahead of the curve in terms of this astounding growth, because their clinical backgrounds bring crucial strengths to the field.
Legislation & Jobs
The surge in demand for specific HIT skills is a direct result of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) passed in 2009, and the Patient Protection and Accountable Care Act (PPACA) passed in 2010. These pieces of legislation seek to build a solid information infrastructure while improving care coordination and creating new jobs to stimulate the economy.
Most eminently, they encourage the adoption of electronic health records (EHRs) by providing incentive payments to providers who can demonstrate they are making "meaningful use" of these technologies. The government has issued guidelines as to what constitutes meaningful use and has set strategic deadlines for phasing them in, with the suggested timeline extending all the way to 2021.1
The frenzy to hire qualified informatics specialists has already begun. In 2010, a report by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) revealed that two-thirds of healthcare providers and vendors surveyed had budgeted to add full-time IT staff in 2011.2
A recent survey by the Hay Group found that 96% of respondents had started to create new IT positions and structure new departments, in response to HITECH requirements. Yet, interestingly enough, the same survey found that newly formed, full-time, clinical informatics positions are surprisingly difficult to fill.
In fact, 47% of healthcare organizations that participated in the survey said they had challenges with recruitment, retention or both.3 This indicates the field is wide open to qualified individuals and job security will remain strong.
The field of informatics integrates health science, computer science and information technology to help clinicians more effectively store, retrieve and apply mass amounts of critical data to daily care delivery.
Nurses have an immediate advantage in this field because they are the most frequent users of the EHR and have critical knowledge of workflows and processes. They can help computer science specialists better understand how care is delivered and documented, which affects how information systems are designed.
As hospitals face the daunting task of implementing EHRs, nurse informaticians will be called upon to use nursing-based knowledge to:
- manage the transition from paper to digital records in ways that keep patients safe from error;
- design information systems that are optimized to reflect current evidence-based standards of nursing care;
- contribute to initiatives that shape local and federal policy regarding HIT; and
- develop and implement technological tools outside the realm of the EHR, including disease registries, home care management systems, remote patient monitoring, quality tracking and reporting systems.
While opportunities in health informatics are plentiful, this position is not an entry-level career. Nurses who find work in this field typically possess several years of job experience and professional education in both information science and nursing.
Some nurses find themselves on the informatics career path after gaining experiential knowledge as a "super-user" - a member of the clinical staff who takes an interest in or has an aptitude for a specific technology, acquires additional training or knowledge of it, and is able to support other clinicians in its use at the bedside.
A super-user might then be asked to assume additional duties, perhaps serving as a liaison between IT and clinical staff, or actually joining an informatics team.
However, the most direct route toward a career in informatics is through formal education. Academic preparation specific to health informatics begins at the graduate level, with a master of science in nursing (MSN) degree that follows a specialty track in informatics.
Graduates of an informatics specialty track program will be prepared to manage health information systems in hospitals and other care facilities, public health organizations, research labs, medical software companies, insurance agencies, pharmaceutical companies and educational institutions.
These specialty track programs, which exist both online and in traditional on-campus settings, build the foundational skills essential to integrating clinical practice with computer science. Courses may include data management systems, algorithms and data mining, project management, and analytical methods that identify key business processes or target opportunities in patient safety.
After completing an academic program along with a year or two of job experience, the next logical step is certification. The American Nurses Credentialing Center offers a board exam for a credential that can improve a nurse's employment and salary potential. Salaries for nurse informaticians are currently rising - they increased 16% between 2007 and 2011, according to the HIMSS 2011 Nursing Informatics Workforce Survey.4
At any career stage, professional organizations can help nurses stay abreast of new technological changes and network with like-minded professionals. The AMIA and HIMSS are the leaders in offering professional resources that include annual conferences, seminars and webinars, best practice guidelines, and networking opportunities. In addition, a free online journal, The Online Journal of Nursing Informatics, is a great source of information on trends, the latest research and new technologies.
References for this article can be accessed here.
Suzanne Richins is chair, health information management and healthcare administration, American Sentinel University, and has more than 30 years of senior level experience in the tertiary care hospital environment.