If you're interested in using big data to improve patient care and processes then a career in this fast-growing area of healthcare could be for you
Health informatics combines elements of the healthcare and information technology sectors. It has been defined in the BMJ medical journal as 'the science of how we collect, analyse and use health information to improve health and healthcare'.
What is health informatics?
'Health informatics involves using digital information to ensure better patient care,' explains Judy Jenkins, programme director for Swansea University's MSc Health Informatics.
'This includes providing doctors with ready access to digital patient records, giving patients information about staying healthy and furnishing managers with data to improve services.'
In the NHS, the term health informatics is used to refer to staff who 'collate, manage, interpret and present patient information,' according to the Health Careers website.
Sometimes the term is used quite generally to refer to any IT systems in the health service.
'It's one of the fastest-growing areas in health,' says Judy. It's a career area worth considering if you have interests in healthcare and using data to improve processes - especially as healthcare professionals now have access to more data than ever before.
How do I get a job in health informatics?
From entry-level roles in administrative functions, to those requiring postgraduate qualifications there's a range of jobs in health informatics. It's also possible to move into this field from other healthcare roles, or from IT jobs.
The NHS splits health informatics roles into seven employment areas:
- Clinical informatics - collecting and analysing data, and communicating it to health professionals who can put it to use to improve patient care.
- Education and training - ensuring that healthcare staff are trained to use the latest technologies.
- Health records and training administration - collating, storing and retrieving healthcare records that are used to diagnose and treat patients.
- Information and communication technology - maintaining and developing IT infrastructure.
- Information management staff - analysing, interpreting and presenting health data to help plan and deliver patient care.
- Library, knowledge and information services - ensuring that staff, patients and the public have access to the right information when they need it.
- Project and programme management - managing major projects to implement new digital systems that put informatics at the forefront of healthcare.
Read more about the job roles on offer in health informatics at Health Careers - Roles in health informatics. Alternatively, you can see what jobs are available by using the search term 'informatics' on NHS jobs, which will also give you an idea of the qualifications required for specific roles.
Depending on the job you're interested in, it's possible to get into health informatics as a graduate, or as a current healthcare or IT professional. You may want to research relevant job profiles, such as:
One way you can gain an advantage over other candidates is to study a postgraduate programme, such as Swansea's MSc Health Informatics. 'The course is suitable for those who already have a first degree, or experience of working in the field at a high level,' says Judy.
'Candidates will usually have a background in computer science, health information management, social sciences, medicines, nursing or other healthcare professions.'
Several universities across the UK offer Masters degrees or postgraduate diplomas (PGDips) in health informatics. As it's a relatively new field, achieving this level of qualification will be a great asset when it comes to applying for jobs.
'A degree at Masters level in health informatics from Swansea University is highly regarded,' says Judy. 'Our graduates have gone onto senior informatician jobs in the NHS and the private sector.
'These include roles such as project managers, senior analysts and specialised software development. There are relatively few people with recognised health informatics qualifications within what is a growing profession, giving our graduates an edge.'
What does a Masters in health informatics involve?
Masters courses in this subject are usually offered part time so that you can continue working while studying. Full time options and shorter courses, such as PGDips, are also available.
Entry requirements typically include a good first degree in a relevant subject, or extensive work experience in a related professional field. Once you've secured a place, you'll study a series of core modules, and - on Masters courses - research and write a dissertation.
For example, the course at Swansea is designed for busy professionals who work full time, as they can study over three years without long breaks from work.
Alternatively it can be studied as a full-time, one-year course. The one-year option is the only one available to overseas students due to visa restrictions. Topics covered include:
- using secondary health data
- knowledge management in healthcare
- health informatics research
'Graduates tell us that the course has improved their career prospects considerably, and the core modules all reflect contemporary themes in health informatics today,' says Judy.