Health Informatics is a relatively new, rapidly growing area within the NHS. Health informatics has a critical role in the digital transformation proposed in the NHS Long Term Plan. To achieve its goals, the NHS Long Term Plan includes the need to invest in digital leadership, with health informatics represented at board level in every NHS organisation by a Chief clinical information officer.
Most areas of the NHS workforce over the next 20 years will be transformed by the adoption of digital technologies. Health informatics, including, for example, the analysis of big data sets extracted from health records, can improve care, developing better understanding of the relationship between treatment and patient outcomes. To meet the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) and big data, multi-disciplinary collaborations between clinicians, computer scientists and engineers will be needed.
There is a national (and global) skills shortage in this area and developing skills in health informatics will enable healthcare workers at all levels to not only participate in and drive digital transformation, but also develop an exciting career path. It is obviously a different experience from a role working in frontline healthcare and seeing patients, but it could have a huge impact on service delivery and patient outcomes, and could compliment clinical work, at a practice, local or integrated care system (ICS) level.
What is health informatics?
Health informatics is about the use of digital technologies and data in health to improve healthcare. NHS Careers’ description adds that it involves ‘the intelligent use of information and technology to provide better care for patients’.
You will also find references to ‘clinical informatics’, which is defined by NHS Careers as ‘an area of healthcare science responsible for developing and improving methods for acquiring, storing, organising and analysing biological data that supports the delivery of patient care’.
The growth in the three new data sciences of genomics, artificial intelligence/big data and precision medicine means that clinical informatics is going to be more essential than ever.
Clinical informatics in health care can be broken down into a number of unique areas, although the distinctions between them are likely to become blurred as data is combined across specialities:
- clinical bioinformatics (health informatics) (for example artificial intelligence)
- clinical bioinformatics (physical sciences) (for example medical devices)
- clinical bioinformatics (genomics)
The Topol Review 2019 reported that the NHS needed to ‘attract, recruit and retain talented science, mathematics and computing graduates to fulfil leadership roles in computational genomics, data science and public health informatics (collectively, ‘bioinformatics’).
It recommended a career pathway for bioinformaticians, including the expansion of higher specialist scientist training for clinical bioinformaticians. Bioinformaticians will become embedded across medical specialities in the NHS, and we are likely to see consultant-level bioinformaticians in primary or secondary care who can lead research, education, and practice within multi- professional clinical teams.
General health informatics skills required for digital transformation
The current workforce delivering care will need to know for whom, where, when, and how digital technologies are able to improve the care pathway and health outcomes. They will also need to understand information and clinical governance issues and be aware of any ethical implications.
Critical appraisal of digital solutions will be needed for both clinical and non-clinical staff. Knowledge of the standards and the regulatory environment will help to procure solutions and implement change.
Clinicians will, for example, need:
- the knowledge and skills to prescribe validated apps and digital products
- to advise patients on the use of apps and digital products
- to interpret the clinical data that they generate
- to create systems to assess and report safety concerns
Chief clinical information officers
The role of the CCIO is to:
- provide leadership and management of information and communication technology (ICT) and information development activity
- support the safe and efficient design, implementation, and use of informatics solutions to deliver improvements in quality and outcomes of care
It is already a well-established role in secondary care and will become common place in primary care organisations and ICS.
The CCIO communicates with and operates in the Board, but also works with front- line staff and managers to engage in digital transformation. The role is a conduit between informaticians and clinical staff. What is needed is the knowledge to understand the enablers of change, the limits of technology, and to be able to work together with and influence both technical and clinical colleagues.
Careers in clinical informatics
Experience of working in a healthcare setting and in either clinical or non-clinical
roles, handling patient data, its information and management, can form a good foundational basis for seeking to develop a career in health informatics.
Roles can include:
- clinical informatics, which includes using patient data to support the development of care
- the development of digital management projects
- ICT management
- providing training and education to staff on the use of digital tools
There are a number of places where you can find out more about clinical informatics such as:
- Federation of Informatics Professionals (Fed-IP), a collaboration between the leading professional bodies in health and care informatics supporting the development of the informatics profession
- Faculty of Clinical Informatics (FCI), the multi-disciplinary professional body for all health and social care qualified individuals (with a clinical focus) working, or with an interest in, informatics across the UK, hosted by the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP)
- FutureNHS Digital Primary Care Workspace, a platform for colleagues working within primary care to come together and share experiences, learning and resources (you will need to register with the site to access this and other workspaces)
- FutureNHS Analyst X Workspace, which aims to connect and empower the data and analytics community, providing a safe space for professionals to collaborate in a radical way across the health system
- Topol Digital Fellowships, providing health professionals with time, support, and training to lead digital health transformations and innovations in their organisations
- The Royal College of General Practitioners Health Informatics Group, which advises the RCGP, its officers and special interest groups, and external professional bodies on issues of information management and technology in general practice and healthcare in general
The Topol Review also explained the need to establish new education programmes in digital healthcare, such as masters degrees and apprenticeships, as well as growing NHS capability to develop and assess the effectiveness of digital technologies. Gaining courses and qualifications in clinical informatics will allow staff to broaden and maintain their skills and experience.
It said that education strategies should include prioritising time and space to learn, appropriate forms of continuous professional development (CPD) via face-to-face training, e-learning and virtual/augmented reality. This should also help to recruit and retain much needed data science specialists within the NHS.
There’s a rapidly growing number of professional qualifications and academic post-graduate health or clinical informatics qualifications available in the UK. These are for anyone working in healthcare, not limited to primary care staff.
Academic programmes tend to come and go according to funding and NHS employer priorities, so it’s always worth searching online for current availability.
The National Clinical Coding Qualification (NCCQ)
The NCCQ is managed and awarded by the Institute for Health Records and Information Management (IHRIM) working in partnership with NHS England. The NCCQ is the recognised national qualification and a prerequisite for certain specialised career pathways, including the formal assessment of approved clinical coding auditors and trainers.
The qualification also acts as evidence of compliance with Data Security and Protection Toolkit (DSPT) Data Standard 3 and can help an organisation towards meeting those standards.
Online courses and resources to support understanding about coding and classification are also available, for example:
- Introduction to clinical coding – a patient’s journey
- NHS Digital terminology and classifications service’s online resources: basic introduction to coding, the four-stage coding process and terminology for pharmacy graduates
- NHS hack day
- NHS open-source programme
The NHS Digital Academy
The concept of the NHS Digital Academy emerged from Making IT Work: Harnessing the Power of Health Information Technology to Improve Care in England (the Wachter review). The review identified the need to develop and invest in the capability and capacity of digital change leaders. The aim was to provide a year-long, world class, fully accredited programme, where participants also had the option to continue onto a master’s degree.
NHS graduate digital, data and technology scheme
The NHS graduate management training scheme offers a supported programme of education, training, and work experience to graduates wanting to establish a career in healthcare. There are several professional pathways, including a digital, data and technology pathway.
Entrants to the two-year scheme start in a band 5 apprenticeship, progressing to a band 6 or 7 level role once they have successfully completed the programme.
The scheme includes:
- intensive foundation training
- structured work placements, training alongside experienced clinicians and managers
- an education programme leading to either a professional or a postgraduate qualification, depending on the chosen specialism
- specialist management development training including support and careers guidance
Up-to-date lists of postgraduate academic qualifications can be found by doing a web search. One example of a list can be seen at Health Informatics Postgraduate Degrees.
Courses are available full and part-time in topics such as:
- health informatics
- data analytics
- digital health
Universities offering postgraduate courses include:
- University of Central London (UCL)
- University of Central Lancashire (UCLan)
- University of West London
- Almost all roles within the health service will require some understanding of health informatics and the technical, ethical, and practical considerations.
- The new sciences of genomics, artificial intelligence and big data will require a new generation of health informaticians to develop systems to analyse and process and draw meaningful conclusions from the vast amounts of new health-related data that is being generated.
- Most health and care management and professional qualifications include some element on information and digital content.
- An increasing number of health informatics professional qualifications are becoming available in the UK. This should help recruit and retain data scientists, and clinical informaticians to help fill the emerging data roles within the NHS
- Health Education England is a good source of information about NHS specific courses and qualifications through its various programmes.
Related GPG content
- Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning
- Medical devices and digital tools
- IT, digital and application training in primary care
- Professional bodies and associations
Other helpful resources
- NHS Careers, Health Informatics
- British Computing Society, BCS Health and Care
- Department of Health and Social Care Chief Clinical Information Officer (CCIO) role description
- National School of Healthcare Science Clinical Informatics — Informatics – Healthcare science specialties explained – Healthcare Science (hee.nhs.uk)