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8/1/2011
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Don't Shortchange Nursing Informatics

The feds are offering $71.3 million to expand nursing education, but lack of targeted funding for nursing informatics is a missed opportunity, says a nurse leader.

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When Dr. Bonnie Westra learned that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was issuing grants totaling $71.3 million to expand nursing education, she had mixed feelings. On the one hand, Westra was delighted that federal dollars will support entry-level preparation, advanced practice nurses, and faculty to teach the nation's future nursing workforce. On the other hand, she was disappointed that HHS' press release said nothing regarding specific funds directed toward nurse informatics training.

"This is a missed opportunity," said Westra, who sits on the board of directors at American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) and is also co-chair of the Alliance of Nursing Informatics. She also said that as the healthcare sector shifts toward building a health information infrastructure that will support last year's health reform law, HHS should increasingly direct its dollars toward educating nurses in health IT skills.

"Seventy-one point three million dollars is great and we're glad to get it, believe me, but what it does not do is it doesn't specifically enforce other policies coming out of HHS, which is the need to educate nurses in advanced informatics positions given the investment that HHS is making in health IT," Westra said in an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare.

Announced Friday, the grants will be administered by HHS' Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and will go toward several areas of nursing education and workforce development.

In recent years, interest in nurse informatics--a hybrid career that ranges from bench science in informatics to teaching and implementation of information systems--has been growing in importance, especially since the Obama administration's stimulus spending developed incentive programs to encourage the adopt of health information technology.

In a recent survey from the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), which interviewed 660 nurse informaticists, 57% of respondents listed systems implementation as their primary job responsibility, up from 45% in 2007. Systems development followed at 53%, compared to 41% three years ago. Regarding types of systems they are helping to develop, 77% named clinical documentation and 62% said electronic health records (EHRs).

The need to urgently develop policies and programs that will prepare nurses for the implementation and effective use of health IT was recently addressed in a position paper released by HIMSS and supported by the America Nurses Association (ANA) and the Alliance for Nursing Informatics (ANI).

According to Westra, a corresponding shift has also taken place in education, including the decision by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, which sets the quality standards for nursing education programs, to declare that the study of information management and application of technology for patient care be an essential requirement for nurses pursuing both the baccalaureate and the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program.

Westra, who also is an associate professor and co-director of the Center for Nursing Informatics at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, did say that under the new grants for the Nurse Faculty Loan Program, one of her students, who is studying to be a nurse informaticist, will be applying for assistance, "but she will be competing with other student for a grant," Westra said.

Among the reasons Westra believes the grants didn't address nurse informatics training is that HHS has already allocated funds through initiatives like the Program of Assistance for University-Based Training and the Community College Consortia Program that can help nurses enroll in health IT training programs. However, Westra is urging HHS to expand its funding to direct more dollars toward the rapidly emerging advanced practice specialty of nursing informatics.

Find out how health IT leaders are dealing with the industry's pain points, from allowing unfettered patient data access to sharing electronic records. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Healthcare: There needs to be better e-communication between technologists and clinicians. Download the issue now. (Free registration required.)

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