In life and death situations, doctors rely on getting the facts they need in a form they can understand. It makes an exciting challenge for a new breed of specialist, says Nick Jackson

So there has never been a greater need for health informatics. Only recognised as a profession in its own right in the last few years, it is still a slightly cumbersome beast, incorporating some very different jobs; from IT and telecommunication experts through librarians and researchers to information analysts. The aim of the work is simply defined: to help patients get the best treatment by providing them and clinical staff with the easiest access to the best possible information.

Most health informaticians work in Information Technology and Telecommunications (IT&T). Getting communication systems working well can have a major impact, as Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Trust found out with the London bombings. One problem in major incidents is that those most in need of help cannot get it because lines are jammed by non-emergency callers. But a new switchboard system at the trust allowed operators to prioritise calls and halved the number of calls operators had to deal with. "It was invaluable in that situation," says Bobbie Lawrence, 52, the head of telecommunications for the trust.

This was part of a package of reforms brought in by Lawrence that has streamlined services and saved the trust thousands of pounds. Lawrence knew she wanted to go into telecommunications when she left school at 15. "Some people want to be a train-driver when they're at school, but I always wanted to be a telephonist," she says. "I like talking and I love the gadgets, I was interested in what you can do with the technology. There are new applications every few months. I find that exciting."

If the gadgets and gizmos of IT and telecommunications are not your thing, there is also the work of finding and sorting information. Most of this work is done on the front-line, collecting and collating information for medical records, but it is also now increasingly necessary across the NHS with the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act.

Diane Parsons, 41, is the freedom-of-information co-ordinator at Oxleas mental health NHS trust. "I do a lot of investigating," she says. "Up and down stairs, in and out of people's cupboards. I quite enjoy it, actually." Parsons joined the NHS two years ago as an in-house temp after leaving her job of 17 years as office manager for an office supplies company. "I thought, 'I can do better than this, there must be more'," she says. She found it in the NHS.

"I have to be aware of what records we have and where we have them," she says. "I will dig and dig and dig." Given the somewhat notorious administrative confusion of the NHS, some might find the work frustrating. But the digging is just part of the fun of it for Parsons. "I'm making order out of chaos," she says.

Making order out of chaos does not just apply to in-house records. "When you go into the library there can be a sense of being overwhelmed by information," says Claire Honeybourne, the library services manager for University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust. "It's a great feeling knowing that I'm able to help people access information globally and manage it."

Accessing the best data is not only a bigger task than ever before, it's also more complex. Among other IT projects, Honeybourne has managed the introduction of hand-held computers in the wards, so that doctors can call on reference books without filling their pockets or dashing off to the library mid-consultation.

Honeybourne, 35, got interested in information management almost by chance. "I was just looking for a job," she says. "Then I worked as a library assistant for a while and I fell in love with it." An MA course at Loughborough University allowed her to combine the medical knowledge she gained in her psychology degree and nursing training with a new love for libraries. "By providing scholarly information to support healthcare workers we help improve patient care," she says. "We're all working together, but coming at it from different angles. I prefer this side of it."

Honeybourne's leap from nursing and psychology to the library may have been by chance, but many graduates already know they have an interest in information. After leaving university, Helen Nicholls, 38, had some trouble finding a job that satisfied the varied interests of a maths, computing, and drama graduate. "I worked as an analyst programmer for a bit but the problem with programming was the lack of going out and about, talking to people," she says. "Now I get to do that and use my maths and IT to analyse big databases and produce figures from them."

Nicholls compiled and analysed figures to see how departments were doing and whether they were meeting targets. Now the head of information at Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust, she advises clinicians and managers on what information they could use to make improvements.

But for Helen Nicholls, and most health informaticians, the real joy is in the information itself and how to communicate it. "You've got this massive database and you're like, 'how do I go about getting information out and presenting it in a way that people can understand?'," she says. "We're the link between IT and the world out there. We talk both languages."

Ian White: 'Health is a good place to work and, at the moment, with all the change, it's very exciting'
Ian, 42, is a member of the national council for Assist, a professional association for health informatics staff

"I graduated from the City of London Polytechnic with a degree in mathematics and statistics. In banking and finance I didn't think I'd have the opportunity to put my statistical knowledge to use and develop my IT skills, but the public sector has given me just that. It is a wonderful place to work and the public sector is great at giving you exposure to responsibility early on. The more you're willing to take, the more you'll get.

"Now I'm an assistant informatics director responsible for a number of projects associated with the national IT programme that's running until 2010. We're looking to revolutionise technology in the service and make it much more patient-centric.

"At the moment we're implementing 'choose and book'. With 'choose and book', when your GP refers you to hospital you can book an appointment there and then with the hospital of your choice at a time that's convenient for you.

"I'd strongly recommend a career in health informatics. I've had the opportunity to move into the private sector, with a pay hike, but I've turned it down. I'm really happy in my career. Health is a very good place to work and at the moment, with all the change, it's very exciting.

"There's something about introducing IT systems into a service that you and your kids could have to use at any time. You're helping to provide your family with a good quality of care. That's a big motivating factor." NJ

The lowdown

What is there to do?
The biggest part of health informatics is information technology and telecommunications (IT&T). The other main areas of employment are working in records, data-analysis, and libraries.

What qualifications would I need?
That depends on what you want to do. School leavers, graduates, and computer enthusiasts all have a role.

How much will I earn?
The most junior roles pay between £11,000 and £14,000 a year, with the norm somewhere from £20,000 to £30,000. Most senior informaticians earn from £38,000 to £48,000, and the very best get up to £58,000.

How do I apply?
Visit the NHS website: www.jobs.nhs.uk, or phone NHS Careers on 0845 606 0655. Jobs are also advertised in the regional press, in relevant trade journals, and specialist health magazines like the Health Service Journal.

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