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The rise of the clinical informatician

Dr Raj Kumar, our Chief Clinician for Informatics, explains his role at NHS Digital and how it’s made him a better doctor, how clinical informatics has developed in the NHS, and gives advice to those looking to enter the field.

In the year of the pandemic, I have often reflected on my 28-year career as a doctor in the NHS. Whilst I love my main role of being a practicing frontline clinician, my part-time role in clinical informatics at NHS Digital gives me a refreshing break each week to do something connected but completely different.

The author Dr Raj Kumar

Life as a clinical informatician is never boring. Every day is different. One day might require a safety review of a product or system and extensive assessment to ensure the product is fit for purpose, safe for patients and for national roll out. On another day the focus may be on user engagement and working with patients, citizens and clinicians to understand their needs from digital health technology so we can build those requirements into our programmes and services.

Then of course there is the data. We all know that ‘data saves lives’ and as clinicians in NHS Digital we have a huge responsibility for that data and its use. The settings for our work change too. We often find ourselves in hospitals, with patient groups, in GP surgeries and many other places, not just in the office. The current ability to work remotely is a key enabler to have!

The opportunity to lead on national projects across the NHS creates a great opportunity to support clinical leadership development across the wider NHS on Clinical Informatics backed by NHS Digital.

The journey so far

When I started my career in clinical informatics 20 years ago, it wasn’t a defined speciality. There were clinicians involved in gathering and analysing data, clinicians with an interest in technology and clinicians who were interested in supporting change and transformation of frontline.

Many of the roles available were poorly defined, unsupported, and often had no clear job description, profile or career progression opportunities. We’ve come a long way since then, encouraged by a few key drivers that really boosted the role to where it is now.

1. The NHS National Programme for Information Technology (NPfIT)

The NPfIT was a multi-billion pound programme that launched in 2002 as an attempt to bring new IT systems and services to the NHS to bind every facet of clinical care. It was delivered by a division of the Department of Health called ‘NHS Connecting for Health’. The programme created and delivered a multitude of patient care delivery and communication tools clinicians use every day, including NHSmail, Summary Care Records, access to the Spine and the NHS high-speed HSCN network, and many more.

In 2005, a National Audit Office report criticised the lack of clinical engagement in relation to the delivery and implementation of the NPfIT. In the aftermath of the report, NHS Connecting for Health commenced a large-scale recruitment of clinicians to support the programme and set up processes for healthcare providers to support clinicians and clinical input into managing local and national IT infrastructure.

2. Chief Clinical Informatics Officers campaign

The NPfIT was officially dismantled in 2011. Just prior to this, senior clinicians in the NHS launched a grassroots systemwide campaign to create Chief Clinical Informatics Officers across every healthcare organisation in the NHS. This led to multiple appointments and paved the process for Chief Nursing Information Officers as well as associates and deputies.

This effort has evolved into today’s Digital Health Network of NHS IT and digital leaders.

3. The Faculty of Informatics

When NHS Digital’s Clinical Director for Patient Safety, Dr Maureen Baker, was appointed Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) in 2013, she supported the development of the Faculty of Clinical Informatics. Since then, the faculty has evolved successfully and now provides a full-fledged list of competencies and skillsets required for clinical informatician. It also created fellowships, memberships and associate roles.

4. The NHS Digital Academy

The NHS Digital Academy  was created in 2017 following Professor Robert Wachter’s 'Making IT Work' review and its recommendations on developing secondary care IT capabilities and developing the role of clinicians in informatics.

The academy delivers an excellent Digital Health Leadership programme in informatics. Though it is open to both clinicians and non-clinicians, programmes such as these have opened up a whole swathe of opportunities for clinicians to access the exciting field of clinical informatics.

The role that information technology plays in supporting safe, effective and joined up care across health and social care organisations is going to occupy the transformation agenda for the next 2 to 3 decades.

A better doctor

I started my career as a secondary care physician before moving into a role as frontline GP for well over 20 years. My long standing role and interest in clinical informatics has perhaps been one of the most definitive influencers in my portfolio career as a frontline general practitioner.

It has shaped my understanding of the nation’s health and social care infrastructure and given me opportunities to work with some amazing people and develop national programmes and leadership networks. This has complemented my role as a GP and has often made me a more efficient and accomplished as a GP in leadership roles across local and regional primary care.

I also find that the short break from frontline work each week allows me to come back and be even more effective at my GP role, which can become incredibly pressurised at times. Even after I took on the clinical leadership role, the mixture of frontline clinical, clinical informatics and senior leadership roles allowed every week to be even more exciting and fulfilling than the previous one.

Thinking of a career in clinical informatics?

The current scope and opportunities within clinical informatics is immense. If you’re a clinician considering a portfolio career, I encourage you to trial a role in clinical informatics. The role that information technology plays in supporting safe, effective and joined up care across health and social care organisations is going to occupy the transformation agenda for the next 2 to 3 decades and provides an immense opportunity for career development opportunities.

Whilst I personally would advocate keeping a part time role attached to the frontline, this may be my own bias, based on my own career. It isn’t always necessary as it’s difficult and more challenging for some colleagues in certain professions to get appropriate part time positions.

What’s reassuring is the fact that even without a frontline hands-on patient facing role, clinicians can continue to revalidate and relicense with their own professional bodies as Clinical Informatics in now a recognised clinical speciality across all professional registration bodies including the General Medical Council, Nursing and Midwifery Council, General Pharmaceutical Council.

The opportunity to lead on national projects across the NHS creates a great opportunity to support clinical leadership development across the wider NHS on clinical informatics backed by NHS Digital.

NHS Digital supports its clinical informaticians with professional appraisals, revalidation, structured professional development programme as well as internal competency and skill sets development training. 

Interested in joining the team? Search current job opportunities on our NHS Digital jobs page.

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Last edited: 22 December 2021 11:47 am