From 2003 to 2006, I struggled to get a firm grasp on what people meant by “informatics”. Since understanding it, I have struggled to find a good way to explain its importance to my public health colleagues. But I think I finally have it.
Informatics skills are what you need to avoid wasting a lot of money, effort, and goodwill when implementing information systems.
Have you ever tried to implement software or some application, only to have it fail because it did not perform as you expected, it was not accepted by the end-users, it did not work with your other systems, or maintain it requires more resources than you could afford? That is a failure of informatics. Has some state or federal agency ever imposed technology or software upon you that captured the information they needed, but made your operations more difficult? That is the result of poor informatics. Does your agency has many program-specific applications that may work well for each program, but which are only sustained by one person’s special skills or which cannot exchange or consolidate information across your whole enterprise? Good informatics planning can lead to more robust, interoperable systems.
Effective use and management of information requires a combination of technology and work processes. Too often, we have viewed software solutions as the “silver bullets”; thinking that installing the right software will automatically improve our processes. But just as you need skill and strength to use a saw, you need training and content knowledge to make effective use of software. Informatics creates a bridge between technology and work processes, to assure good match. But it is not simple. Good informatics requires a significant resource investment in selecting and implementing solutions. Like most prevention, it is easy but risky to skip.
Important informatics skills include change management (not just IT change management, but culture and process change management as well), business analysis, stakeholder engagement, project management, requirements development, strategic thinking to place projects into a larger vision, building for inter-operability, translating between IT & business, system life cycle, Communications, ) A good informatician can speak the language of both IT staff and program staff, and should be a good communicator and group facilitator.
Informatics skills are not necessarily present in IT departments. A programmer may be very skilled in writing a program to do what he wants, but is rarely skilled in getting the thorough understanding of what users need. The database administrator may be very skilled in structuring a database to run very quickly, but usually does not understand the content well enough to create operational definitions that address what program managers want to know. And even if an IT department has good informatics skills, agency leadership often requires implementation timelines that short change the informatics-intensive phases of a project, like the homeowner who paints a room without first prepping the walls and trim.
Why should you try to get more informatics skills in your health department’s workforce? Why should you consider creating an informatics director position? Because, in the long run, it will save you money, effort, and will earn you goodwill, rather than reputation for having failed or hard to use systems that do not meet user needs. You will spend more time preparing for new systems, but less time fighting with those systems after they are implemented.