Will nursing IT be the ‘Next Big Thing?'

By Jack Beaudoin
12:00 AM

On the last day of the 2005 HIMSS Annual Conference and Exhibition, I asked Healthlink's Marion J. Ball to identify the most important trend that developed during the show's week-long run in Dallas. Her response was unequivocal.

"Power to the nurses," she said.

I was surprised, because I was almost certain she would name consumer informatics as the Next Big Thing in healthcare information technology. After all, Ball and coauthor Rosemary Nelson had just won the HIMSS Book of the Year Award for "Consumer Informatics: Applications and Strategies in Cyber Health Care" (Springer, 2004). And national HIT coordinator David J. Brailer, MD, made several references in his keynote address to the growing need for IT to boost consumer driven healthcare reforms.

But there was no doubt in Ball's mind that nursing informatics is poised to explode. She noted attendance at the HIMSS Nursing Symposium was more than double the previous year's. Nursing education sessions at the show were frequently standing room only and there were more nametags with "R.N" titles than ever before.

Fran Perveiler, vice president of communications for HIMSS, confirmed that nursing informatics was a hot topic at the on-site bookstore. She said her top-selling nursing titles had sold out at the show and that the clinical symposia – the nursing and physician sessions – easily broke records for attendance.

According to Ball, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, nurse educators must adapt to the rise of information technology and the prospect that IT will have its greatest impact when nurses are its primary users in clinical settings. They must also adapt to the ever-growing demand for skilled, professional nurses.

But even as the profession faces these two challenges, there is a crisis brewing. "Fifty percent of nursing professors are eligible to retire in the next two years," Ball says. "It's not only that there aren't enough people becoming nurses, but that we are going to lack the infrastructure to train more nurses."

The flicker of hope is that a large turnover in nursing school faculty will usher in exactly the kind of changes needed to develop a new curriculum with a greater emphasis on IT in nursing. The next generation of teachers may be better versed in the contemporary use of information technology – and can envision its future uses.

Ball is bullish on this point. She says nurses have historically welcomed new methods and science that improve patient care.

"Did you know," she told me with a wry grin, "that the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, was a statistician?"

A little post-HIMSS research confirmed this. In fact, Nightingale may have been the first healthcare informatician. As a biographer noted in the Newsletter of the Association for Women in Mathematics (Vol. 23, No.4), "Her work with medical statistics was so impressive that she was elected (in 1858) to membership in the Statistical Society of England. One of the pioneers in the graphic method of presentation of data, she invented colorful polar-area diagrams to dramatize medical data."

Power to the nurses, indeed!