Friday, October 16, 2009

Informatics Is Not Just For Clinicians

I receive a steady stream of emails from people who are interested in careers and/or education in the biomedical and health informatics field. To the extent I can, I try to reply, giving advice and steering them to more information.

One inquiry I recently received was from someone who has an information technology (IT) background and noted that most of my writings seem to imply that informatics is a profession mainly for those with clinical or other healthcare backgrounds. He noted that I point to research and other observations that clearly show than an understanding of the clinical environment, its thinking, and its workflows are essential for career success in this field.

This individual asked, is there a role for non-clinicians in this field? My reply, as always, was a definite YES! Not only has our workforce research and the experience of others shown that there are plenty of opportunities for work for those who do not have clinical backgrounds, we also know that many of the 250+ alumni of our graduate program, a number of whom are non-clinicians, are gainfully employed.

This is not the first time I had been asked this question. In fact, we felt compelled to write about it several years ago in an issue of our department newsletter, noting even then that were plenty of jobs for non-clinicians in a variety of informatics settings.

However, it is clear that those without healthcare backgrounds must understand clinical environments. They need to understand its operations, it workflows, and even its thinking. But that can be learned, and for many jobs it is sufficient to not have formal training in a healthcare profession.

Now it is true that non-clinicians might end up in different jobs and follow different career paths than clinicians. Of course, that is the case even among the different types of clinicians. The best example of that is the position of Chief Medical Information Officer. This position is almost always filled by a physician. However, there are many other informatics jobs in healthcare settings that other physicians, other healthcare professionals (e.g., nurses, pharmacists, lab techs, healthcare administrators, etc.), and non-clinicians fill.

Some readers of this blog have seen my figure that provides an analogy from Bayesian statistics, i.e., what you do in a career after an informatics education is a function of both what you brought into the education and of what knowledge and skills you gained in the education. Ok, so the analogy is not perfect, but I hope it makes the point that informatics is a large and diverse field, and there are roles for people of many backgrounds who are passionate about using information to improve health.

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