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Chris Dickson
By
April 04, 2019

Health Informatics - What makes a good Health Informatician?

Over the last 15 years I have been involved in developing and managing informatics teams for the healthcare industry in the UK. Some have required coaching, some performance managing and in a couple of unfortunate cases outright restructuring. Over this period I have developed my own definition of what makes a good and great healthcare informatician.

 

The unfortunate truth in my opinion, is that the NHS does not provide the opportunity for most people to reach this bar. This is possibly due to a skewed sample distribution as I have mainly worked as a tunraround manager, but I am yet to work in a department where their entire establishment is in post as substantive salaried members of staff, with crucial vacancies having to be filled by expensive interims ,or alternatively, less expensive interims who do not have the required experience and end up costing you more in hiring people to fix the mess they make (but that is for another blog post).

 

In this first post I am going to look at what qualities we are looking for in a good healthcare informatician, in the next few posts we will look at why we struggle to find and keep them and how to address this, plus my thoughts on team roles and structures.

What makes a good Health Informatician? 

Maths - I'm hoping it comes as no surprise to anyone that you have to be mathematically minded to be successful in this field, I have no problem explaining to an operational manager the difference between Mean and Median or why you cannot average something that has already been averaged or is a percentage, but this is not a conversation I should need to have with the people tasked with providing sound analysis to be used by operational staff to make decisions. Sometimes we get really lucky and come accross an analyst with statistics training.

Computers and Software - again it should be pretty obvious that someone wanting to work in this field have a strong affinity to computers, you will be using one almost constantly in your professional life. Experience with databases and business intelligence software can be gained on the job, an understanding of common software interfaces and how to find the right help will take you a long way here - I know a number of excellent "Google coders", people who cobble together code snippets from web searches into a perfectly functional piece of code.

Soft Skills - I can't think of a better term for this group of skills, calling them "soft" somehow diminishes their importance in my mind but they should not be ignored, and in my experience these are the skills most in need with the analysts the NHS is able to attract. The ability to talk to people, understand their needs, ask the right question and get to the bottom of what someone is actually needing (normally not what they ask for in the first instance). These skills allow the informatician to create the right requirement specification to work to, manage the expectations of their customers and tell a story with data that is compelling and useful. The healthcare informatician needs to be an influencer without being the final authority on a subject, they need to be a problem solver, think proactively about the questions in front of them, work collaboratively with their clinical and operational colleagues and be creative, both in terms of their approach to the data and question but also in the why they choose to present it back to their customers.

Data communication - a great many reports that have passed my desk in the last few years have gone straight back to the analyst that produced them, some common sins are;

  • A simple dump of data, yes a lot of work went into the crafting of the query to pull that data together, but to provide it as a table of data to a non analyst customer is just not acceptable, some form of summary as a minimum please.
  • Volume, a slide deck containing 87 of the same chart filtered for different criteria, this tells me the analyst didn't understand the question or didn't get to the root of why a question was being asked, quality over quantity please.
  • Confusing output, either two conflicting pieces of information without an attempt to understand/explain the conflict, or similarly to the volume problem not being able to pick out the salient information due to the presentation choice.

It is a skill that we hone with time, but being able to write reports that are meaningful and answer the real question being asked is a key skill for a Health Informatician. Use of technology that lets you communicate data visually, tapping into the pre-receptive power of the human brain, will get you a long way, but knowing how to source and present contextual information on top of this is also key.

Passion - I've met so many analysts in the NHS who fell into the job because they were "ok with computers" and had performed a data management function within a specific department because they could pull together an Excel spreadsheet, the truth of the matter is they don't have a passion for the job and end up unhappy and bored. To work in the NHS you have to care about helping people, this includes the administrative and management functions. As informaticians we have the ability to help people, not directly like our front line colleagues but by helping a manager understand a bottleneck in their service or helping clinicians identify a group of patients who may have had sub optimal outcomes we can help them in the process of improving the service patients receive. Having a passion for maths, computers and people are essential to being not just a good analayst but a great one.

Experience - ok, so you don't have this at the start of your career, but experience of various healthcare environments and roles gives an informatics professional a breadth of knowledge and understanding of why questions are asked. It is my belief that to become a truly valuable asset to the NHS you have to have experience of working in a commissioning or regulatory environment and an operational delivery environment at the very least. This will allow the analyst to play the most important of roles, to play devils advocate with their and their colleagues work, knowing the challenge that will be passed back should a report be sent from one side of the NHS to the other, to understand the challenges faced by the operational analyst trying to provide data to the commissioner.

Need to pass the "Nan Test" - this is a relatively simple test and one that most analysts learn very quickly when working for me, it comes out of the passion for helping people that I mentioned above. One of the sad truths about being an analyst in the NHS is that we will inevitably report on unfortunate situations and examples of poor care. The Nan Test is about turning those numbers being reported into human beings, it is asking the analyst to consider that the person who we failed to treat their cancer quickly enough was their Nan (or other relative), how would they feel and therefore how should we as a caring organisation feel and as a person reporting this fact feel. It is true that a lot of NHS employees have to develop a thick skin and gallows humour to survive what could otherwise be a depressing environment (the only guaranteed thing in life is death, especially in the health service!), however as a professional group normally quite detached from the front line of healthcare I feel we have to remind ourselves what the data we are dealing with really means.

 

In the next post in this series I will look at the struggle the NHS has with recruiting and retaining this very fashionable skillset. If you are interested in knowing more about becoming a Health Informatician or you are an NHS organisation wanting to know about how Promatix can help with your data science and health informatics needs please get in touch.

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