“How do I get started in Nursing Informatics?”

“Do I need a master’s degree in Nursing Informatics to have a career in this field?”

“How can I build up my experience so that a hospital or other healthcare facility will hire me?”

These are just some of the questions that I’ve been asked by friends, peers, and strangers over the last ten years that I’ve been working as an Informatics Nurse.  To help get some answers, I initially turned to the web for guidance because I wanted to give them a comprehensive answer that went beyond my own experience, but I found that other nurses around the US were also asking the same questions, mostly in nursing forums.

Most of the answers were personal anecdotes from nurses who made the transition.  I noted that some had career paths similar to mine, while others had vastly different experiences. Some volunteered for informatics-related responsibilities, like I did, while others had the role handed to them by management.  Some decided to pursue a graduate degree, while others earned an informatics or project management-related certification. Some nurses did both.

Below is a list of possible ways to help you transition to a career in nursing informatics, compiled from my informal “research” and my own experience.  I have not dubbed these steps “simple” or “easy”, because most of them involve a set of preparatory steps, and some of them are complex and may require a significant commitment in time and energy. Oftentimes, it takes a combination of these steps to break into your first official Nursing Informatics job. Please consider these as general guidelines which are intended to help you take that first step in the transition.

Note that these are not ordered by priority or effectiveness, and the links I’m providing are meant to be resources, and not endorsements of any particular book, group, organization, school, or conference.

      1.  Learn more about the field. This means reading up on what it encompasses, and what roles you can potentially have.  Get more information from such websites as HIMSS and ANIA.  Read forums discussing Nursing Informatics such as the one in allnurses.com.  Caveat:  when reading online forums, please remember that the opinions given by members are just that – opinions – and should not be mistaken for expert advice.  Read about nursing informatics in books (usually textbooks, some of which are available in Amazon) as well journals (such as CIN).
      2. Volunteer for an informatics-related role in your organization. This can be as a Superuser or Trainer/Educator if your facility is planning to implement a new system or as a chart auditor if your EHR (electronic health record) or CIS (clinical information system) is already in place.  In any case, you want to have a very thorough knowledge of information or documentation systems, either on the front-end (i.e. as Superuser) or middle-space (i.e. as a chart auditor).
      3. Join professional organizations.  Professional organizations such as the above-mentioned HIMSS and ANIA, as well as AHIMA (American Health Information Management Association) and others can help connect you with professionals who are already working in the field of nursing informatics, as well as provide you with resources about this specialty.  These professional organizations also organize webinars, conferences, and classes that will expand your knowledge and understanding of the field.
      4. Attend classes, conferences, webinars or workshops. These not only expand your knowledge but may potentially provide you with new skills, as well as provide a venue for you to network with other nursing informatics professionals.  One of the biggest NI conferences is the Summer Institute in Nursing Informatics, held annually in Baltimore, Maryland.  The Weekend Immersion in Nursing Informatics is a workshop/seminar-type mini-conference that takes place over an average of 3 days, and is held in different places in North America.  HIMSS, ANIA, and AHIMA all hold annual conferences as well as offer online education courses.  Starting in February 2020, TheInformaticsNurse.com (this website) has been holding free 1-hour webinars, where attendees learn 3 mistakes to avoid, 3 busted myths, and 3 practical moves to make to take the first step in their Nursing Informatics journey.
      5. Interview nurses who are in a job or role that you would like to do.  If you know an informatics nurse, then you have a valuable resource within reach.  In my experience, most nurses are open to sharing their knowledge, experience, and expertise.  Sometimes you just need to step out of your comfort zone and ask.  Begin with simple questions such as how they got the role, and what their typical day is like.  Find out if they took a class, course, or workshop that helped them get their job.  Keep an open mind, and learn from someone who is already doing what you want to do.
      6. Attain a certification.  A certification is simply an affirmation that you have some specialized knowledge and/or skills.  This can range from a project management certification from an organization such as PMI, or an EHR application from a vendor such as Epic Systems.  Once you have some nursing informatics experience or graduate school education under your belt, you can also obtain a Nursing Informatics certification from a nationally-recognized organization such as ANCC. Note that to be eligible to sit for ANCC’s Nursing Informatics certification examination requires you to have at least 1,000 hours of experience in informatics nursing in the last 3 years or completing a graduate program in informatics nursing containing a minimum of 200 hours of practicum. As of July 2020, the ANCC requirement involves:

        Have practiced a minimum of 2,000 hours in informatics nursing within the last 3 years;
        or
        Have practiced a minimum of 1,000 hours in informatics nursing in the last 3 years and completed a minimum of 12 semester hours of academic credit in informatics courses that are part of a graduate-level informatics nursing program;
        or
        Have completed a graduate program in informatics nursing containing a minimum of 200 hours of faculty-supervised practicum in informatics nursing.
      7. Pursue a related graduate degree.  Because this entails a lot of commitment in terms of resources (time, finances, effort), this needs a lot of careful thought and planning. 

        Let me be very clear:  I am not saying that having a graduate degree will guarantee that you will get a job in Nursing Informatics.  Although many job openings these days state that a graduate degree (often in Nursing Informatics, but it could also be an MSN, MBA, MHA, or other advanced degree) is preferred, oftentimes it is a combination of experience and advanced education that makes a candidate stand out from others.  And usually, with all things being equal, a candidate with a BSN but has previous experience in a particular job will have a leg up over a candidate with a Master’s degree but no experience. 

        The reality is that there are many variables taken into consideration during the hiring process in addition to experience and educational background, such as the candidate’s specific area of expertise, their attitude, as well “soft skills” such as communication, collaboration, and negotiation skills, and even how they perform during the interview or round of interviews, among many other factors.

        If you are considering pursuing a graduate degree, make sure that you take into consideration the reasons you are doing so. Try asking yourself some questions, such as: Are you doing it because you are interested in gaining more knowledge about the Nursing Informatics specialty and want to grow in this arena? Is it in line with your strengths, interests, and goals?

        If this is a path that you really want to pursue, there are now many choices with regards to Nursing Informatics programs. One of the more well-known Nursing Informatics programs is offered by the University Of Maryland School Of Nursing.  The University of Illinois at Chicago has an online Health Informatics program and Duke University also offers a distance-based MSN Health Informatics Program that only requires 2 days on-campus two times during the program.

      • U.S. News and World Report publishes an annual list of the Best Nursing Informatics Programs.
      • If you live in one of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) states, you can look into qualifying for a tuition-discounted graduate course under the Western Regional Graduate Program (WRGP).  According to the description in their website, the WRGP “allows master’s, graduate certificate, and doctoral students who are residents of the WICHE member states to enroll in more than 400 high-quality programs at 60 public institutions outside of their home state and pay resident tuition.”  WICHE member states include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

      1. Network inside and outside your organization.  Networking is not just for corporate- or marketing-type professionals.  If you want to grow professionally, you must make the effort to network not only with the other nurses in your unit, but with those in the other departments, throughout your organization, and even from outside organization.  You can achieve this by joining professional organizations and attending conferences, as previously mentioned.  You can also do this by volunteering for projects within your unit, organization, or community, which shows that you are committed to the growth and improvement of the group, and at the same time help expand your knowledge and your network.
      2. Volunteer for different projects in your organization. This includes roles that will allow you to teach or support your peers, as well as improve the quality and performance of your unit.  You don’t even have to do only informatics-related projects.  When you volunteer to lead or support projects, you acquire skills in teaching, coordinating, managing, facilitating, and communicating, which are highly useful when you have a role as a nurse informaticist.
      3. Learn a computer programming language or systems analysis.  While this may sound a bit more difficult than some of the other steps, this skill actually comes in handy if you are interested in the analysis/build/validation side of Nursing Informatics, which is EHR implementation projects need.  You can learn these on your own or by taking an in-person or online class, course, or workshop.  This field teaches you how computer logic works, and gives you confidence when you are collaborating with the more technical members of the team, such as programmers and technical analysts.
      4. Find a Nursing Informatics mentor and/or coach.  Once you’ve started networking with different Nursing Informatics professionals, you may want to find someone who will be able to guide and inspire you as you grow in your chosen career. 

        The terms “mentor”and “coach” are often used interchangeably, but they actually differ in terms of focus, types of results, time frame, agenda, and approach.  Mentors usually work with their mentees over the long term with a focus on self-development.  This relationship usually uses a non-structured approach, with mentors and mentees usually connecting monthly to a few times a year, with an open agenda regarding topics and direction. 

        Career Coaches, on the other, usually focus on improving performance and accomplishing a single specific goal.  They work with their clients or students to obtain quick and measurable results in a structured format.  This is similar to athletes having an athletic coach to specifically help them win a game or a tournament, or business people hiring a career coach to help them attain a high-level promotion or get a job in a different industry than the one they’re currently in.
      5. Develop project management skills.  I personally think that basic project management skills are a must-have for every Nurse Informaticist.  Project management, as defined by Wikipedia, is the discipline of planning, organizing, securing and managing resources to bring about the successful completion of specific project goals and objectives. 
      • As clinicians, we already have the basic building blocks of project management, because it is very similar to the Nursing Process of Assessment, Diagnosis, Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation that was instilled into us at nursing school, and is very similar to what we already do every day at work.
      • If we liken a project to a clinical shift where we have a goal (for example, improvement of the patient’s health status) and a finite amount of resources to manage in order to achieve that goal (for example, there are only 12 hours in the shift, and there are only a certain number of staff who can help you take care of the patient), it becomes easier to see that with training and experience, competent clinicians indeed have the potential to become effective project managers.  Project management knowledge and skills can be further developed by reading books, attending classes, and attaining the experience by getting involved in projects.

      (This post was originally published in June 2011, and is occasionally updated.  Last update: August 2020)

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