Nurses are poised for the informatics revolution

Health informatics has been called the new frontier of health careers, a booming job field and the hottest new trend in nursing. But is a specialty that focuses on finding ways to improve information management and communications to boost efficiency, reduce costs and improve patient care all that new?

Not according to  Linda Q. Thede and Jeanne P. Sewell, who co-wrote “Informatics and Nursing: Competencies and Applications.” If collecting data is the building block of informatics, then Florence Nightingale was the first nursing informaticist. She gathered data and developed the first version of the pie graph — the “polar area diagram” — to dramatize the need for better sanitary conditions in military hospitals.

Nurses have collected and analyzed data to enhance practice for years. In the race to implement electronic medical records in health care — which was mandated by the 2009 American Recovery and Revestment Act — nurses who are interested in information technology are definitely in the right place at the right time.

“Nurses have a decided advantage when it comes to health care informatics,” said Suzanne Richins, Ph.D., chair of health information management and health care administration at American Sentinel University. “They are already the most frequent users of electronic health records and they have inside knowledge of the work flow of health care systems. They understand medical terminology and they interface with all providers, including physicians and allied health professionals.

“More importantly, they have the necessary people skills. They know how to listen, critically interpret what they hear, and translate it into action.”

American Sentinel University is one of many schools that offer  nursing informatics education. The school has an online master’s degree program in nursing/nursing informatics specialization.

The informatics experts featured in this month’s cover story — Sandra Lucius and Nancy Stockslager — were in on the ground floor of the field and learned their skills on the job. Today, nursing students can study informatics at the baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral levels. The American Nursing Association defined the specialty, its scope and practice in 2001, and the American Nurses Credentialing Center offers certification in nursing informatics.

“Nurses interested in the field must be able to embrace technology and the speed at which it changes,” said Lucius, RN, MSN, assistant vice president of nursing operations at WellStar Kennestone Hospital. “But they must also be able to gain the trust of clinicians so that they are willing to learn and use the systems well.”

The job doesn’t end when a new system goes live. You have to train employees on it and maintain it, which is why theynneed to understand the clinical side, said Stockslager, RN, MSN, director of clinical information at Gwinnett Medical Center. “Some days I feel like I’m leading a charge. It’s not just making sure our systems encompass a wide consensus of end-users; it’s taking care of those users in any situation.”

The American Nursing Informatics Association describes the specialty as “where caring and technology meet.”

“I absolutely see the role that way,” Stockslager said.

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