Devices & Technology

The Emerging Role of the Nurse Informaticist

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By Christina Orlovsky, senior staff writer

As computers take on a growing presence in hospital settings, the need continues to increase for the marriage of patient care and information technology. Enter the nurse informaticist—a role that perfectly combines the two most important aspects of health care delivery in the 21st century.

“The role of nurse informaticist has grown unequivocally, for multiple reasons,” said Patricia Abbott, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, FACMI, assistant professor and codirector of the World Health Organization/Pan American Health Organization Collaborating Center for Information Systems in Nursing Care at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, in Baltimore, Maryland.

First, computer usage has become more prevalent in both schools of nursing and in health care facilities.

“When I first started in this field in the 1980s, computers were pretty novel. They’re not anymore,” explained Abbott, who is also the director of the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA). “Now, students come into nursing programs expecting technology.”

Further, the government has made health care informatics a priority, which has led to increased funding for facilities that implement greater technology.

“President Bush called for the development of the personal health record for all Americans by 2014, and the government has said they’re going to start rewarding people who are using information technology in health care,” Abbott explained. “When the government gets behind it, money comes, and that’s when you start influencing people.”

The most recent example of the need for increased medical and nursing informatics comes in the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina—not for those whose lives were taken, but for those survivors left behind with no medical records and, often, no recollection of what medication they were taking, their diagnoses or even, in the case of many infants and elderly adults, who their caregivers are.

“Katrina has made a compelling case for the public, the government and the health care industry on the need for the electronic patient record,” Abbott asserted. “We need a skilled informaticist to lead us in that charge. There’s an increasingly heavy need for cross-trained individuals—nurses, physicians and pharmacists—who understand both the clinical side and the I.T. side to marry the two.”

So strong has the need become for nurses to become skilled in informatics that 18 national and regional nursing informatics groups joined together in 2004 to form the Alliance for Nursing Informatics (ANI), under the direction of AMIA and the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS). More than 2,000 nurses representing organizations from across the country have gotten together to provide a consolidated forum for the nursing informatics community.

“This alliance provides the structure and synergy needed to support the efforts of nursing informatics professionals in the improved delivery of health care,” said Joyce Sensmeier, MS, RN, BC, CPHIMS, HIMSS director of professional services. “As more health care organizations develop electronic health records and technology solutions, nurses who manage and work in the nursing informatics field have increasingly vital roles in designing and implementing systems that enhance the safety of patient care.”

These vital roles come various different forms within and outside of health care organizations.

“There are three major areas where nurse informaticists are being hired: corporations, academia and hospital industry,” Abbott explained. “A lot are being hired by corporations, like Cerner and Eclipsys, for positions in research and development and sales. Who better to sell an information system than a nurse who also has clinical skills? She can walk the walk and talk the talk,” she added.

Other nurse informaticists go into education—a field in great need of informatics instructors. In fact, AMIA has developed an initiative called the “10x10 Goal,” which aims to train 10,000 health care professionals in applied health and medical informatics by the year 2010.

Finally, nurse informaticists are being hired by hospitals to function in the role of systems analysts. Some are even entering upper administrative roles of chief information officers.

“They are bilingual: They understand the clinical process and the clinical enterprise, but they also know informatics,” Abbott said.

Whatever a nurse’s role, Abbott asserted that it is every nurse’s responsibility to climb aboard the informatics bandwagon.

“The AACN has already issued basic core informatics competencies for the BSN,” she added. “If nurses don’t have that core competency, they’re really not practicing as a competent nurse.”

Abbott explained that there are numerous ways for nurses to increase their informatics knowledge, either through self-education, distance learning or an information technology training program. Participation in one of the many nursing informatics groups is also an option for nurses who would like to get involved with other tech-minded health care professionals. Technology is, after all, where the health care industry is headed.

“I use this quote all the time to students and faculty who are hesitant about computers: Either you’re a part of the future or you’re history,” Abbott said.


Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing

Health Information and Management Systems Society

American Nursing Informatics Association

Alliance of Nursing Informatics

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