BLOG: The changing role of eHealth professionals?

The term ‘informatics’ is a term that divides rather than unites people. Similarly, the term ‘digital’ suffers from being one word with thousands of interpretations.
By James Freed
09:12 AM

Although there are nuances, I use the two terms almost interchangeably, so I need to start with a definition. For me the ‘informatics’ or ‘digital’ profession are those people who use data, information, knowledge and/or technology as the main part of their job. This includes clinical coders, software developers, librarians, IT helpdesk personnel, CIOs, CCIOs, data analysts and knowledge managers, to name but a few professions in this big melting pot of informaticians.

With some exceptions, you don’t need qualifications to operate as an informatician in the NHS. Now, don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of very good, very dedicated people out there, but it does mean standards of practice don’t always exist or are not always applied. In other words, our profession is young.

Working with the clinical and social care frontline

I am jointly responsible for the implementation of commitments made by the National Information Board back in 2014 around helping the health and care workforce make the best use of data, information, knowledge and technology. I am doing this through a five year programme called Building a Digital Ready Workforce (BDRW). Part of our plan is to mobilise the informatics workforce, a division of the hidden army in the health and care industry, to support the workforce to take best advantage of this fast-moving area. We’ve asked for informatician input on how to do this through a three-week long online workshop that concluded on 13th December with over 4,000 ideas, comments and votes from 1,136 contributors, mostly from England but also all across the world.

One of the conclusions of this work is confirming a long held belief of mine – that we need to work with, rather than at, the clinical and social care staff who treat, diagnose, care for and interact with the patients, families, service users and public we ultimately serve. The solutions we help to deliver need to be owned by those users and, over time, that user base will cease to be just our workforce and start to be the public themselves. In short, exactly what the Government Digital Service has been saying. 

Most importantly is the recognition that the majority of change ideas come from the frontline, those people who actually undertake our business activities on a day-to-day basis. They do the do, so they come into contact with customers/ users/ patients. They know where our processes are flawed and they come up with the ideas to improve. Our role needs to be in recognising that expertise and working out how best to meet those needs and, thankfully, there is some excellent work now on what a true digital organisation needs to look like.

The workshop also identified a desire to learn and keep learning, which is hugely encouraging. In this world of accelerating change, particularly accelerating technological change, none of us can afford to sit on our laurels assuming we know enough. To that end, the BDRW programme has invested in the launch of the Federation of Informatics Professionals, the Faculty of Clinical Informatics and the NHS Digital Academy, and the workshop is calling for more investment still. These places will be part of the solution, helping to define a profession for informatics, or digital, in health and care and continuously evolve a set of learning products and networks to support the community.

So what is changing in the informatics profession?

In short two seismic shifts that, when taken together, have the power to be game changing:

Firstly, the informatics profession is recognising a need to never stop learning and to find ways to learn from one another as much as from recognised (and improving) sources of expertise. We are becoming a true profession and one that recognises its value, not as guardian of the fastest growing toolset on the plant, but as facilitator of change for good. 

Secondly, we are starting to recognise that we don’t have a monopoly on good change ideas and we are increasingly putting in place processes and technologies that empower our whole workforce. We are starting to have better dialogue with our clinical colleagues, and we are starting to help them become informaticians too. We are ceasing to be technicians and becoming champions, educators and servant leaders.  

Whatever change is happening, not unlike technology itself, it’s accelerating. Also like the tech itself, making best use requires our combined communal efforts. We all have a part to play, whether it’s Arm’s Length Bodies, healthcare providers or commissioners, academia, the third sector or cause-based organisations like HIMSS UK. Making best use of digital is big, getting a well-established and continuously learning profession is a key part to that and we will need to collaborate to reach this prize.  

James Freed, Chief Information Officer, Health Education England


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