What is Informatics?

In the past, I taught Health and Nursing Informatics to graduate (Master’s and Doctoral) students. Many times the students came into the course with very little knowledge of what the course was about or the scope of practice within informatics. We often started the course with a question, “What is Informatics?”

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Informatics is generally a term not well known to the general population. Some students have initially thought nursing informatics is a class about how to use computers. Others believe it is only about electronic health records (EHRs). In reality, informatics is much broader than either of those ideas.

Informatics is the use of data and information to generate new knowledge in an effort to develop wisdom. Now add, nursing to the front of the definition and that is the domain of practice where informatics will focus. There are many specialty areas of informatics that you will see in healthcare : biomedical, medical, health, and pharmacy are just a few.

At times, some students also wonder how informatics is related to nursing practice. Yet, the reality is that every nurse providing patient care is using data and information to generate new knowledge about their patients.

For example, a nurse is using his/her stethoscope to listen to the heart rate. The nurse is gathering a number from the patient. That number is the DATA. Knowing that the number represents a heart rate subsequently turns that data into INFORMATION. Now, by monitoring the heart rate over time and identifying trends along with the use of clinical expertise and the patient’s response over time, the nurse develops KNOWLEDGE about the patient. Subsequently the WISDOM is the highest level of the hierarchy and is dependent up expert practice and expert systems. Some refer to this level of human cognition as intuition…when you just “know” that something will occur.

Thus, nurses are constantly leveraging the science of informatics when caring for patients. While they may not be conceptualizing it in those terms, the actions taking place are representative of the foundation of informatics. As a result, informaticians or informaticists work to identify ways to better support others with tools that can be used to more effectively leverage the insights derived from data, information, knowledge and wisdom. These tools may be verbal communication, paper based tools, images, and of course, hardware and software applications.The field of nursing informatics continues to grow with more interest and more opportunities to leverage the combination of nursing expertise with a foundational knowledge and understanding of informatics.