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What Is Nursing Informatics?

August 20, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Nursing informatics is one of many specialization options open to people when they decide to focus on a career in nursing. Most people who choose to become a nurse do so by studying for a nursing diploma, spending some time in the field then upgrading to a full degree.

After earning a degree and some clinical experience, a nurse can choose what they would like to become a specialist in. There are many areas of health care that a nurse can focus on, from the ER to anesthesia, pediatrics, or informatics.

Informatics is an interesting area that goes beyond the norm of nursing practice, and looks at ways computing can improve the quality of patient care across the health service. Becoming a nursing informatics specialist allows a nurse to combine their passion for patient care with an interest in data science and information technology.

The field of nursing informatics

The American Nurses Association defines nursing informatics’ scope and practice as one that “integrates nursing science with multiple information and analytical sciences to identify, define, manage and communicate data, information, knowledge, and wisdom in nursing practice.”

Becoming a nurse informaticist means taking a step off the healthcare floor. Informatics specialists do not usually work directly with patients, but rather take a more behind-the-scenes role. This makes it an appealing option for someone who is passionate about healthcare and wants to make a difference to the quality of care received by a large number of patients.

An informatics nurse has the ability to advocate for patients in their own wing or facility, or even make a difference to the care processes and procedures used across the entire healthcare system. They analyze data, find ways to improve the efficiency of health care, either by finding potential areas for improvement through their analytics or by developing new technologies for nurses to use in the field

The purpose of nursing informatics

Nursing informatics is a broad and varied field, with some nurses who move into it working in a role similar to that of a data analyst, while others focus more on research and development, creating new technologies for use by RNs in health care settings.

What is nursing informatics, and what does a person in this field do?

A nurse informaticist is a qualified nurse who has specialized in technology or information-related areas, either through taking a master’s degree in nursing informatics or by studying a more ‘pure information technology’ master’s degree on top of an existing nursing degree.

Around two-thirds of nurses who specialize in nursing informatics hold a master’s degree in nursing. Informatics roles are often considered senior roles, and many choose to pursue health informatics after qualifying as a nurse.

Unlike other areas of health care and nursing, a nursing informatics specialist doesn’t usually spend a lot of time working with patients. Rather, they spend their days looking at numbers and statistics, or working on new technologies and training other nurses in how to use them. Some elements of nursing informatics are more patient-facing than others, but it is overall a computing-focused role.

Nursing informatics roles can include:

  • Analyzing patient data from Electronic Medical Records (EMRs)or hospital data
  • Generating reports
  • Computer programming for health-care systems
  • Research and development of tools for use by nurses
  • Testing systems
  • Developing new procedures and standards
  • Training nurses on new systems
  • Acting as a liaison between technical staff and clinical staff
  • Project management
  • Troubleshooting systems
  • Evaluating systems and creating specs for improvement

The highly specialized nature of this field means a nursing informatics specialist may find themselves reporting to IT or management, rather than to the nursing department. It’s common for informatics nurses to work fairly independently, which some may see as a bonus, but others may find isolating.

What are the typical career paths of someone in nursing informatics?

Training for a job in the health informatics field opens up many different career options at various levels. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for someone with a technical or informatics-related specialization is $58,600, with salaries of $103,430 at the higher end.

A nursing informaticist will not necessarily work in a hospital. Some do, but there are many other venues where they may apply their skills, including:

  • Nursing schools
  • Health-adjacent consulting firms
  • Software/Hardware companies
  • Clinics

Common job titles in the world of nursing informatics include:

  • Nursing informatics specialist
  • Nursing informatics officer
  • Clinical analyst
  • Clinical applications specialist
  • Informatics consultant
  • Nurse educator

What does a nursing informatics specialist do?

Nursing informatics specialists work directly in health care settings. They serve as a liaison between the health care professionals themselves and the IT department, evaluating and implementing new systems, training nurses on those systems, and assisting with basic day-to-day technical problems.

This is a common entry-level role for a nurse who is looking to move from general patient care to informatics. There are options for promotion to managerial or consulting roles.

What does a nursing informatics officer do?

Informatics officers also work in health care settings and have a role similar to informatics specialists. The Chief Nursing Informatics Officer is a senior nurse who oversees the department and takes a more managerial role. 

Informatics officers lead development projects, plan and oversee the delivery of systems and have a higher level of input into the roll-out of systems with a nursing focus. 

What does a clinical analyst do?

Clinical analysts are similar to computer analysts in other fields. They install and manage the systems and networks other health care professionals rely on. Clinical analysts also offer basic training and information to help staff members understand new systems.

Clinical analysts may be permanently based at a large clinic or hospital, or work for a health care provider and visit clinics on an as-needed basis.

What does a clinical applications specialist do?

Clinical applications specialists focus on software, training nurses, care workers, and others on how to use key applications. They may work for a hospital, in other health care settings, or for a healthcare software company.

A nurse who wishes to travel extensively may opt to become a clinical applications specialist for a software company. This gives them the opportunity to visit many different hospitals to deliver training or support.

What does an informatics consultant do?

Informatics consultants are experienced informatics nursing specialists who advise hospitals and clinics on their options for improving patient care. These experts are required to stay up-to-date with the latest technologies. They may work with several different clinics, liaising with a nurse leader before auditing and making recommendations for improvement.

This is a role that requires a high degree of informatics competency. Those who pursue this role may have the opportunity to travel a lot and take on fresh challenges at each hospital or healthcare facility.

What does a nurse educator do?

Nurse educators can work in hospitals, assisting with the onboarding and training of new nurses. Alternatively, they can work in nursing schools, colleges, and other education settings delivering training on the latest technologies. 

This is a popular career choice for those who are looking for a less clinical-centered role. Nurse educators often have the opportunity to devote a lot of time to research and development.

What areas of nursing informatics are currently in demand right now?

According to HIMSS, demand for Chief Nursing Informatics Officers and Senior Nursing Informatics Officers has been on the rise. As of 2020, 41% of the nursing informatics-qualified respondents to their survey had that role.

Overall, nursing informatics is an in-demand field, and that trend is likely to continue as healthcare providers look to scale their services and facilities. There is a lot of opportunity for qualified nurses with a good understanding of IT systems to move both upwards, and sideways, in the nursing informatics field.

This means those who are unsure whether they’d like to focus on software development, consulting, or training and education can hone their skills while working.

Educational requirements for a nursing informatics career

The route into a nursing informatics career is similar to the route for other nursing-related roles. Most people who are looking to start a career in nursing informatics begin by becoming a Registered Nurse (RN), and either specialize from there or continue their studies to become an Advanced Practice Nurse (APN) before exploring the technical side of nursing.

This gives the would-be informatics specialist a chance to earn some clinical experience so they can develop an understanding of health care from both the perspective of those on the floor and that of the technical experts. 

Because health informatics aims to bridge the gap between healthcare workers and the world of information technology, they require a high level of training and expertise, so many nursing jobs require a master’s degree.

What degrees should you earn if you want a career in nursing informatics?

The typical route into nursing informatics is to complete a Bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN), and then pass the NCLEX-RN examination, which is a requirement to become a licensed nurse. It is possible to pass the NCLEX-RN after taking an associate’s degree, but the Bachelor’s route is becoming increasingly common and some states require nurses to pass the BSN within a few years of licensure if they wish to continue to practice.

After licensure, many would-be informatics specialists choose to study a Master’s degree in nursing (MSN) or a Doctoral degree (DNP). 

The BSN typically takes four years. Studying an MSN after earning a Bachelor’s takes an additional two years, and a DNP takes two years after that.

It is possible to enroll on a four-year DNP immediately after earning a BSN.

Most Master’s and Doctoral programs are designed to be studied part-time while the nurse is continuing to practice.

Most nurses wishing to pursue a career as an informatics nurse will spend a year or two working as an RN, and pursue some form of IT experience and training during this time. Many hospitals offer the opportunity for interested nurses to become ‘technology support users’, which gives them some exposure to how systems work and allows them to gain skills that they’ll use in their advanced practice.

After gaining some experience they can opt to move on to a Master’s degree with a nursing informatics focus. These degrees may cover many subjects, including:

  • Databases
  • Statistics and their use in evidence-based practice
  • Project management
  • Clinical information systems
  • Information security
  • Privacy and data policies
  • Leadership and teaching

To become certified in the field of nursing informatics, a nurse must have practiced for at least two years as a full-time registered nurse (or have an equivalent number of part-time practice hours), and have completed a nursing informatics graduate program with at least 200 hours of supervised practice, or have completed a suitable amount of informatics-related practice, a nursing informatics certification, or training in a job-related setting.

Nursing informatics specialists often use software development or analytics skills, and vendor-specific or IT-focused certifications in these areas may be deemed appropriate.

What sort of continuing education is required for someone in nursing informatics?

All nurses are required to keep up with a program of continuing education or continuing professional development in order to retain licensure. 

In the case of nursing informatics, certification is awarded by the American Nurses Credentialing Center following an examination. The certificate is valid for five years. One of the requirements of the certificate is that nurses complete at least 30 hours of continuing education in nursing informatics in the three years prior to applying for the certification.

That CPD could come in the form of courses, conferences, training certificates or CPD-approved research and reading.

What additional certifications are beneficial for someone in nursing informatics?

A nursing informatics program will give a high-level overview of a variety of topics applicable to the informatics field. Beyond that, it’s up to the nurses themselves to consider how they would like to develop their careers.

A nurse informatics specialist interested in creating new software to improve patient care may wish to learn to program. One who is interested in analyzing patient records could benefit from a data science certification. Machine learning using tools such as Kubernetes is becoming increasingly popular among many in the health care field and could be of use for a clinical informatics specialist interested in improving care procedures.

Because of the wide range of options open in the field, nurses can explore the areas of informatics that interest them the most.

The benefits of a nursing informatics career

Becoming a nurse informaticist allows a nurse to use the skills they have in a unique setting. The career choice is one that makes sense for someone who wants to be involved with patient care but who dislikes the busy nature of wards.

Some nurses spend a few years ‘on the front lines’ then look to more analytical roles as they gain experience and are looking to slow down. Others who are number and detail-oriented may find the work enjoyable and challenging since it allows them to focus on interesting problems.

What are the average sign-on benefits for someone in nursing informatics?

Nursing informatics is considered to be one of the more desirable fields in nursing. In addition to having higher average pay than a Registered Nurse, those who work in nursing informatics can often expect several perks associated with the job, including:

  • Paid time off
  • 401k/403(b)
  • Medical and dental insurance
  • Life insurance

These benefits can mount up quickly in terms of long-term cost savings and protection for the future. Informatics nurses have the opportunity to work in a variety of settings, and many positions give the opportunity for travel, keeping the position exciting and fresh.

What are the long-term benefits of a nursing informatics career?

Promotion options for nursing informatics specialists are promising. The field of health informatics gives nurses a chance to work not just on wards and in clinics, but in educational settings or at a software company.

Some nurses start hoping for patient-focused work when they’re young but find the demands of a busy ward too much as they get older. Those who previously worked in ER or other high-pressure settings may wish to find a way to continue using their expertise in a setting that is less stressful.

Nurse informaticists can make a significant difference to the quality of health care and patient outcomes but do so in a different way to those ‘in the field’. They can use their knowledge of data, statistics, and computing to empower other nurses and make the health care services they work with more efficient.

These nurses get to work on the leading edge of health care, developing new systems and working with software, hardware, and platforms that other nurses may not see for a long time. this is one of the benefits that few people really think about. After a while, any field can get boring, but IT moves so fast there’s always something new to learn.

Those who prefer not to sit in front of a computer all day can still get involved with nursing informatics in other ways. People with good communication skills and who enjoy working with or around others can provide training and consulting services, acting as a bridge between the tech-focused IT department and the health-focused nurses, enabling them to communicate more effectively.

Choosing a nursing informatics program

If you’ve decided you’d like to study nursing informatics, you’ll need to find a program that is accredited and accepted in the state or country where you wish to practice. Most people study a standard BSN degree first, then start a graduate-level program after they have earned their nursing license.

Finding a good nursing informatics program

The best nursing informatics programs are ones that accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).

Because pursuing a postgraduate qualification can be costly, many people opt to study at an institution with a generous bursary scheme. Duke University is one example of a highly-regarded institution that has a nursing informatics program and offers a variety of scholarships.

Another example of a popular MSN program covering nursing informatics is the one at Vanderbilt School of Nursing. Scholarships of up to 10% are available for students enrolled in the NI specialism.

There are some online MSNs available covering the topic of nursing informatics. For some students, an online course makes more sense because it allows them to continue working, offsetting the cost of their tuition fees.

Student loan forgiveness programs or sponsorships from health care providers may also help those who are struggling to cover the cost of their tuition. These are typically offered for nurses who work for a non-profit hospital and who stay there for at least ten years, as a thank-you for their service to the medical profession in that time.

What do the best nursing informatics programs have in common?

There are many different jobs under the title ‘informatics specialist’. If you’re not sure what kind of work you want to do within the field of nursing informatics, it’s probably best to choose an MSN or a postgraduate diploma that offers broad exposure to the field.

The best nursing informatics programs will expose learners to a range of topics, including data security and privacy, statistics, data processing, project management, and other IT-related skills. From there, nurses are armed with the knowledge they need to explore other areas.

Some nurses may have a specific interest, such as reporting and data analysis, software development, training, support, or machine learning. A broad nursing informatics course won’t cover these things in-depth, so a would-be specialist may need to engage in CPD or take an additional course after their masters.

The best courses offer the foundations that allow someone to bridge the gap between informatics and health care by giving the learner the understanding of both fields required to communicate clearly and efficiently.

Whether you choose to study at a university or remotely, be sure to investigate the support offered to learners, especially if your existing educational background is not one with a significant amount of IT exposure. Engaged lecturers and a robust support network can make all the difference to how easily you bridge the gap from clinical work to working with data.

How can you tell if a nursing informatics program is right for you?

If you’re considering enrolling on a nursing informatics program, take some time to consider your goals and whether you truly want to make this your specialism. Nursing informatics is a respected and financially rewarding field but it’s unlike most other parts of nursing in that it is not particularly patient-facing.

If you’re happy to do your healthcare work in front of a computer screen, looking at reports, and improving care on a macro level, nursing informatics may be for you. If you prefer to make a difference to individual patients, there are other specialisms that may be a better choice.

A nursing informatics course typically takes two to four years of study, which is a significant commitment. After that, you’re expected to stay up to date with the latest tools and technologies. This may be easy for you if you’re someone who truly enjoys computing, but if your passion lies elsewhere in medicine the field of health informatics could become dull quite quickly.

The time commitment comes with a financial cost, so finding sponsorships, bursaries, and scholarships is important. If you’re willing to take a little longer to become qualified you may want to consider getting IT-specific training and earning experience in the field. It’s possible to become certified as an informatics nurse with 2,000 hours of supervised experience, and someone with an existing technical background may find that to be a good option.

A nursing informatics program is a good choice for someone who wishes to advance their career in health care and to help the profession as a whole. Informatics specialists can support newly qualified nurses and train them in the latest tools, advise health care facilities on way to improve their services, and pioneer new software and nursing developments.

There are opportunities for travel in nursing informatics that are often not available to nurses who are stationed at a hospital or clinic. Consulting and working for health-adjacent companies opens up new working environments that are very different from the standard hospital or doctor’s office.

Taking the step out of pediatrics, ER, or other wards is daunting for some nurses, but it’s a logical move for many after years of working in an environment they may find to be high-pressure. Moving into the computer room allows a nurse to continue making a difference and supporting those front-line workers, making an invaluable contribution to the success of their work.

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