Nursing informatics is a highly specialized field of nursing. A nursing informatics specialist is a registered nurse who has studied information technology and how it impacts health care. These nurses maintain, develop and offer support for the computer systems used in hospitals, clinics, and other health care settings.
An informatics nurse may be based in a hospital or could work in a corporate setting. They use their IT and data science skills to support other nurses and improve patient outcomes. Some nurses are drawn to the idea of working in health informatics because it gives them a way to be involved with health care while moving away from patient-facing work inwards.
For nurses who are looking for more regular hours and predictable workloads, being an informatics nurse specialist is the logical next step. It’s possible to move into informatics as a registered nurse or a nurse practitioner, and the clinical experience these highly trained nurses have will help them to devise more effective and efficient systems to improve patient care in the long term.
What nursing informatics specialists do
Nursing informatics is a broad field that covers all aspects of information technology and how they impact patient care. Nursing informaticists may:
- Provide training and support on IT systems for nurses in a clinical setting
- Design and develop new IT systems for health care providers
- Offer consulting or sales for health-related IT systems
- Troubleshoot computer systems in hospitals
- Run reports and analytics on patient data
- Work with electronic medical records (EMRs) to devise ways of improving hospital efficiencies
What does the field of nursing informatics include?
Nursing informatics specialists work with data and information technology in a health care setting.
In the field of nursing communications, there are three core building blocks:
Data is the term used to describe simple facts or direct observations, such as the name, age, and medical history of a patient.
Information describes data that has been interpreted, such as the prevalence of a specific disease in a given age group.
Knowledge is the term used to describe how information can help identify relationships, allowing nurses and public health experts to make decisions or further observations, such as:
- How a new care protocol alters patient outcomes
- What level of nurse to patient ratio offers the best patient outcomes
A registered nurse or nurse practitioner uses information, data, and knowledge during their day-to-day work, often without consciously thinking about how they’re applying these concepts. They receive a lot of data from computer systems and may process that data to turn it into information. Those at the highest levels of the profession build on the knowledge base of nursing by interpreting information.
Nurse informaticists create the technologies other nurses rely on. The field is quite a broad one, and a nurse who wants to work in informatics has the option of focusing on the area that interests them the most, whether that’s data, development, education, or support.
How does nursing informatics improve the quality of care?
Nursing informatics provides individual nurses and high-level decision-makers with the information they need to offer the best possible health care.
The nurses operating in a clinical setting rely on information for almost everything they do:
- Reviewing medical histories
- Checking medication lists
- Accessing lab or imaging results
- Communicating with physicians and other interdisciplinary team members
- Logging care plans
Before the days of computers, information was logged in paper files. This was an effective way of managing patient information on a local level but has limits when patients transfer between hospitals, move to another area or need to work with multiple specialists. Informatics helps health professionals communicate with each other more effectively. This reduces the risk of medical errors and delays to patients receiving care, and helps reduce costs too.
At a broader level, health care informatics helps inform hospital procedures and even public policy. Nurses with a robust understanding of computer science and information systems can generate reports on hospital-acquired infections, patient care delays, mortality rates, or staffing and use the information they gather to identify potential improvements to rotas, care practices, and protocols.
Requirements to become a nursing informatics specialist
To qualify as a nurse informaticist, you will first of all need to become a registered nurse. It’s possible for someone with an extensive background in computing to move into the nursing profession through a non-traditional route, but most people who work in nursing informatics start as healthcare professionals and learn to use computers as a tool within that profession.
What training and education do you need to work in nursing informatics?
The standard route into nursing is to obtain a bachelor’s degree in nursing, known as the BSN, then pass the NCLEX-RN. At this point, you’re entitled to practice as a registered nurse. Some hospitals accept NCLEX-RN certification holders educated to the associate’s degree level, but the long-term employment options for a nurse who holds a BSN are far better.
Most nurses will spend a couple of years working as a Registered Nurse, getting experience in a variety of health care settings before they decide what they’d like to specialize in. During this time, a nurse can pursue some entry-level certifications. For example, the Informatics Nursing Certification (RN-BC) awarded by the American Nurses Credentialing Center is a good entry point for a would-be nurse informaticist, giving them the baseline skills and confidence they need to progress in the profession.
After certification, many nurses opt to pursue a master’s degree or doctoral-level qualification. Most organizations require nurses to have a BSN to start the master’s degree (MSN), but there are some universities that admit experienced RNs who have only an associate’s degree via an intensive bridge program that covers the units they’ve missed from their undergraduate studies.
If informatics appeals to you as a field, you may want to spend some time engaged in independent study about computer systems, security, and programming. A nursing informatics program will cover a lot of information about computer systems, data, and informatics nursing, but taking the time to develop your computer literacy skills will give you a head start.
Why might you choose to become an informatics nurse?
Many informatics professionals in the field of health care chose that side of the profession because they want to make a difference, but don’t enjoy the hustle and bustle of the emergency room or the irregular hours of working on-call in a clinic. The stability of the office environment appeals to some nurses.
Other informatics nurses have a passion for technology and data. They’re detail-oriented and enjoy using modern tools and technologies to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of health care. The world of computer technology is constantly evolving, which means there’s always something new to learn and experiment with.
If you’re someone who enjoys facing fresh challenges every day and learning new things, you’ll find computing and informatics a stimulating field. You can do almost anything you want with a computer, so if you enjoy solving problems, testing new ideas, and creating things, then specializing as an informatics nurse could be a good choice.
Informatics nurses can work in a variety of settings:
- Behind the scenes in hospitals
- With local governments in a public health role
- At private clinics
- In education
- As developers in a corporate setting
- Traveling in a consulting role
Few other specializations in the nursing field have this much freedom and flexibility. This is another reason informatics appeals to nurses who are looking for a change of pace after many years on the hospital floor.
What skills make an effective nurse informaticist?
All nurses are expected to be diligent, hardworking, and systematic. IT literacy is becoming an increasingly important skill for nurses today, too. However, the working environment and day-to-day routines of an informatics nurse are rather different to those of a nurse who works in an emergency room, neonatal ward, or in a clinic.
A successful informatics nurse needs a variety of skills, including patience, critical thinking skills, and a willingness to learn.
Interpersonal skills in informatics
Informatics nurses often have to collaborate with interdisciplinary teams. They may find themselves dealing with other nurses, nonmedical managers, doctors, IT professionals, and even legal teams. Communicating with people from different professions, who each have their own goals, needs, and procedures can be tricky. Just as a Registered Nurse needs to be able to communicate with patients, loved ones, and physicians, an informatics nurse will still find themselves needing to draw on people skills on a regular basis.
Communication skills often get overlooked when people start studying to move into informatics, but a nurse informaticist with good communication skills will excel in the profession. It’s common for nurse informaticists to deal with large quantities of complicated data. Health informatics data can be dense and difficult to interpret. Being able to convert that data into human-readable form to allow others to make decisions from it is a valuable skill.
Communication is two-way, and nurse informaticists must be able to listen to the requests of other departments, understand what they’re asking for, and get to the heart of the problem. Listening skills, being able to ask questions and confirm your understanding of an issue is a useful skill for all nurses, not just those focusing on informatics.
Robust problem-solving skills are essential
Health informatics is partly about processing data gathered in a health-care setting, and partly about putting information technology to use to make your life easier. Informatics nurses need effective problem-solving skills both in terms of figuring out how to make computers do the things they want them to do, and how to solve the health care problems put in front of them too.
In some cases, the problem to be solved may not be a technical one, or even a specific health care issue, but one of interdisciplinary politics or a lack of resources. You may need to work with people from multiple departments, address budget concerns and work towards a compromise that allows you to achieve your department’s goals.
It’s easy for people to pigeon-hole informatics nurses as just doing data analysis or coding, but the human side of the profession is incredibly important.
Nurse informaticists must understand health data systems
One of the main reasons nurse informaticists are expected to build up some clinical experience before moving into the field of informatics is the requirement for the nurses to understand the health data systems they’re working with. Privacy, security, and precision are vital in the world of health informatics. Nurses who understand electronic medical records, patient privacy, and the ethics and legal issues surrounding handling patient data will be well-positioned to work with that data and drive improvements in information systems.
Some nurse informaticists work as ‘super users’ while they’re training to take on more specialist roles. Others move into tech support full time, staying in a health care setting but providing advanced IT services for nurses who are still working on the floor. They help new nurses learn hospital systems, advise when things go wrong, and generate reports for the nurse leaders.
Programming is a basic skill for everyone in IT
Computer programming still exists as a job title, but it’s no longer something that only specialist programmers do. Anyone who is serious about working in the field of informatics should have some understanding of programming, even if it’s just using a scripting language to automate some common day-to-day tasks.
Those who enjoy programming may choose to pursue more advanced training in that field. Take some time to find out what platforms your informatics systems run on and which languages will be the most useful before learning a new programming language.
Demand for nursing informatics
Demand for nurses is increasing across the board as the current crop of highly trained nurses reaches retirement age. The health care sector as a whole is under increased load in the United States due to the country’s aging population. As the average age of the population gets higher, so too does the number of people living with acute or chronic health conditions.
Nursing informatics is a relatively niche specialization, so there isn’t as much information about the size of the sector or overall job growth as there is for other areas such as pediatric nursing or oncology. However, demand for registered nurses, in general, is expected to increase by around 7% between 2019 and 2029.
In terms of salaries, nursing informaticists can expect to earn far more than the national average wage. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies nurse informaticists as being in the category of “health information technologists, medical registrars, and technical workers”, and gives a mean annual wage of $58,600 to workers in this category.
It’s likely most informatics nurses will earn more than this. The top 10% of workers in the category the BLS uses for nurse informaticists earn an average of $103,430. Average salary surveys from third-party salary sites such as Payscale list nursing informaticists as earning $86,804 per year before bonuses. Those who work in corporate settings or focus on consulting may earn even more than this. This is the average nursing informatics salary, and exact figures will vary depending on location, experience, and job title.
When did nursing informatics become a specialty?
Nursing informatics is a relatively new specialty. The first certification for this specialization was released in 1992, at the same time as the American Nurses Association recognized informatics as a specialty practice. Nurses aren’t the only health care professionals that can train in informatics. There are certifications available for physicians and others in health care too.
The basic informatics certification is open to all nurses who are licensed at the RN level. Nurses who wish to pursue a career as a Chief Nursing Informatics Officer, Clinical Informatics Manager, or move into a consulting role will most likely pursue a master’s degree, such as the MSN in Nursing Informatics from Walden University or the Masters in Informatics Nursing from Grand Canyon University. These postgraduate qualifications will open up a variety of employment options for health informatics professionals.
What is the career outlook for nursing informaticists?
Demand for nursing informaticists is likely to increase in the coming years as hospitals look to improve their IT systems and find ways to increase their efficiency by using technology. It’s becoming increasingly important for hospitals and clinics to be able to share information with each other.
New health care systems that can analyze patient information and identify emerging disease trends could help us make huge steps forward in terms of health care. Training nurses in how to use these systems is going to be important, and this means job roles such as Nursing Informatics Educator will always be in demand as well.
Best path to becoming a nursing informatics specialist
There are several ways into the nursing profession. Those who are less academically inclined may opt to train as a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN) and take that certification so they can gain some experience working in a health care setting.
While LPNs and LVNs are allowed to call themselves nurses, they have a much more limited scope of practice compared to Registered Nurses (RNs). To qualify as a nursing informatics specialist, an LPN would have to first of all complete an LPN to RN course, which would give them a degree-level education.
The traditional route into nursing is via either an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. Most people opt for a bachelor’s degree because this offers better long-term job prospects.
In total, it takes four years to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing and pass the NCLEX-RN.
What degrees lead toward careers as nursing informatics specialists?
The Bachelor of Science in Nursing is a general nursing qualification that provides would-be Registered Nurses with a general grounding in the field of health care. This four-year degree has to cover a lot of ground, including ethics, law, anatomy and physiology, and the foundations of patient care.
There isn’t a lot of time to focus on issues such as informatics. That’s why nurses who wish to specialize continue their education by studying a Master’s degree. There are many different MSN programs to choose from, and several institutions offer the option of following an online MSN program, allowing nurses to study remotely while continuing to gain clinical experience.
Some nurses opt to take a second degree in Business and Information Systems, Data Analysis, Machine Learning or other highly focused information technology fields. These degrees will stand them in good stead if they choose to pursue a job in a more focused area of IT. However, nurses who wish to remain in a health care setting and pursue advanced practice roles with some exposure to informatics will need to
Which colleges offer the best degrees for nursing informatics?
There are many educational institutions offering Master’s in Nursing and Healthcare Informatics degrees or other similar informatics nursing qualifications today, including several offering online qualifications with part-time study option or bridges for those who are qualified to ADN level but who do not have a bachelor’s degree.
Some of the best include:
- Duke University
- University of South Carolina
- University of Texas – Tyler
- Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center
- Loyola University New Orleans
Duke University is a highly respected research university that offers many online Master’s Degrees in Nursing. Fees average $1,838 per credit for online study, and their on-campus health informatics course gives students the chance to build up some valuable practicum hours under the supervision of experts in the field. Entry to Duke is competitive, and fees are above average, but there are many scholarships and bursaries available.
University of South Carolina
The University of South Carolina offers online degrees in Health Information Technology, as well as a Master of Science in Nursing with a focus on nursing informatics. The course is delivered online, with asynchronous delivery and the opportunity for nurses to get practicum credits for work they carry out at their current workplace. The qualification prepares students for certification through the ANCC, opening up employment opportunities including high-level positions such as Clinical Informatics Coordinator and Informatics Nurse Specialist.
University of Texas – Tyler
The UT Tyler Master of Science in Nursing Informatics, Quality and Safety is a degree that is designed to help nurses prepare for the ANCC Informatics Nursing certification as well as HIMSS CAHIMS certification, the AANC Essentials, and the Quality and Safety Education for Nurses competency. This degree is delivered online and lays the foundation for further doctoral study while preparing nurses for the examinations that are most important for advancing their careers.
Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center
The MSN in Nursing Informatics track at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center is an online degree that requires occasional travel to the Lubbock campus, where nurses can gain field experience or work in an immersion environment. Those who already have an MSN can enroll on the Post-Masters Nursing Informatics Certificate. This qualification is aimed at nurses who have already covered the AANC Essential Competencies and wish to earn a second specialization.
Loyola University New Orleans
Loyola University New Orleans has a School of Nursing that offers a variety of MSN-level courses for nurses, including a Nurse Educator option with a slant towards informatics. Loyola University offers RN-BSN and BSN-DNP courses as well as traditional courses for those who have followed more standard educational routes.
Choosing a university for your nursing informatics education
Many nurses opt to complete their studies via distance learning so they can focus on building up clinical experience and remain at the hospital or clinic which currently employs them. If you’re a quick learner, already technically literate or feel comfortable exploring IT subjects on your own, online learning may work well for you.
If you’re new to the world of IT and are having to play catch-up with some of the data science or programing elements of an informatics course, face-to-face learning may suit you better.
Check the curriculum of any informatics course you choose to follow and look into the student support options available. Are there chat groups, student forums, or regular tutor sessions for you to take advantage of? Is there the option of attending immersion sessions on campus throughout the year? What is the pass rate for the ANCC certification?
With dozens of universities offering informatics courses, there’s no need to settle for a course that leaves you to fend for yourself. Take the time to shop around and find something that offers you the support you need to become a successful informatics nurse, and that will prepare you not just for the certification but for the career that comes after it.