Informaticists Interpret Data into Improvements in Patient Care

A devoted inpatient nurse a few years into her career, Bronwen Huron was frustrated by the difficulty of documenting and accessing health information about her patients.

“After a code, I stayed hours after my shift to document manually and by memory. I admitted patients who did not know their history and could not access their records. I spent more time charting what I did not do than what I did,” she recalled.

She started asking questions about the health information system and the process of documenting information in “the same way I assessed a sick patient I did not yet understand.” Her quest to understand how patient data was captured and used by the hospital led to a realization of the impact she could make by taking her career in a new direction.

Huron left her nursing position to complete a health IT internship at the HIMSS Innovation Center. She then earned a master’s degree in healthcare informatics from Kent State University. Now, she is the manager, interoperability initiatives, for HIMSS, “where I have a great opportunity to make a difference through health IT,” she stated.

Informaticists playing increasingly crucial role
Many nurses, as well as other professionals, are mirroring Huron’s informatics career path. The HIMSS 2017 Nursing Informatics Workforce Survey gained responses from 1,279 of the 8,000-plus nurse informaticists working in North America. The survey’s results show these professionals playing an increasingly crucial role in the development, implementation and optimization of clinical applications including nursing clinical documentation, computerized practitioner order entry (CPOE) and electronic health records (EHRs). HIMSS created a workgroup to create a standardized job description for a nursing informatics specialist.

“Because most health systems have EHRs in place now, they can focus on optimizing them and taking advantage of all the data that’s there,” said Joyce Sensmeier, MS, RN-BC, CPHIMS, vice president, informatics, HIMSS North America. “Informaticists are diving into analytics and looking at big data.” From a clinical perspective, their work helps to improve workflow and care processes, as well as the outcomes of patient care,” she explained.

Clinical education, certifications, degree programs boost informatics career opportunities
Because informaticists have evolved into playing integral roles on care teams, Sensmeier emphasized the importance of gaining basic clinical education when aspiring to a career in this field. Nurses, pharmacists, dietitians, physicians, clinical engineers and other healthcare professionals can pursue certifications in informatics and in health IT in general. Sensmeier, for example, has a certification in nursing informatics (RN-BC) from the American Nurses Credentialing Center, as well as a CPHIMS certification from HIMSS. “This shows the industry that I have expertise beyond nursing that can apply to a broader healthcare environment as well,” she explained. In addition, HIMSS has approved education partners that have health IT-related offerings, with most having informatics programs.

For those interested in earning a master’s degree in informatics, Sensmeier recommended gaining clinical experience first. “I think it's better after you've worked for a while, because it's not all theoretical,” she explained. “So much of healthcare is practical, and once you've done patient care and you've experienced the environment, you're going to be able to understand the impact better and how those systems can be optimized, then improved.” She added that individuals without clinical experience, but with the ability to gather and analyze data or with computer science or math backgrounds, can be considered for informatics positions after they take healthcare courses or gain healthcare experience.

Opportunities lie within and beyond hospitals and health systems
While many informaticists work for hospitals or health systems where many opportunities are available, Sensmeier said start-ups, academia, physicians groups and payers are hiring informaticists, as well. And with nearly half of the respondents to the workforce survey making more than $100,000 annually, there are many opportunities for advancement. Chief nursing informatics officers – CNIOs – work at the corporate level, oversee multiple nurse informaticists, and work in tandem with the C-suite. Some informaticists have risen to even higher positions in health systems, she said.

To be successful in this career, Sensmeier said individuals must be detail-oriented. “When you're dealing with patient care, you can't have errors in the system, because patients lives are at stake,” she stated. “And you need to be able to listen to the nurses, understand what their needs are, and then translate that back to the technical side. There's an important communication piece.”

No less connected to patient care than she was while working as an inpatient nurse, Huron also has observed the importance of communication during her career in informatics. “Listening to each other and working together saves lives, either at the bedside or behind a computer,” she said. “In my role, I increase that communication between stakeholders in health IT, and while I may not have to wear a stethoscope to work every day, I am most definitely a nurse.”

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