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A session at the recent conference wasn’t just about raising the profile of the informatics field, or about professional skills, but instead putting forward an idea for evolving healthcare informatics into an actual profession.
There are arguments for making healthcare informatics a profession in its own right: We handle specific types of data, develop systems and applications specifically for healthcare service delivery, we mitigate specific risks, and it requires some understanding of the data our systems are processing. Informatics has become far more than an auxhilliary resource. As such, anyone should expect a minimum standard of competency and accountability among those of us handling large volumes of patient information, and among those of us who approve clinical applications as being safe for deployment.

Actually something like this could be beneficial to the industry in general. Significant data breaches and privacy violations have become too common, and evidently the current ‘safeguards’ aren’t working. I often hear the adage that there are two types of company: those that have been hacked, and those that don’t know they’ve been hacked. I’ve also heared it often repeated during my undergraduate years that organisations can’t prevent themselves being hacked, but can only mitigate the effects of being hacked. Those statements kind of give the impression that doing the bare minimum is acceptable, when a lot more should be done to prevent data breaches.

I’m not saying IT generally should become a regulated profession – that would unrealistic and a bit stupid. What I’m saying is it would be nice to have a register of professionals that we, as consumers and patients, know could reasonably be trusted with our personal information. It would also be nice to replace convoluted and ambiguous ‘privacy statements’ with a clear and transferrable code of ethics that professionals are genuinely committed to. The UK Council for Health Informatics Professions (UKCHIP) is attempting to put that idea into practice, but the consensus seems that UKCHIP doesn’t quite carry the same weight as BCS membership, and the latter is the way to go.

To say the BCS is irrelevant would be unfair, but it’s certainly under-represented outside academia in my experience. Among the 40-odd people representing all the departments in and around informatics at the conference session, hardly anyone claimed membership of the BCS. Members are also a very small minority among the Unified.Diff and South Wales Linux User Group – the people who are passionate about their areas of expertise. Why is this?

First reason is that computing is vastly different from the medical profession, since anyone could develop software, create an online service and teach others the skills without being formally qualified – which is a good thing, in my opinion. While BCS membership should imply a level of competency and experience, the reality is people do establish themselves in the field long before they’re eligible for full membership. When you already have a career, other certifications and professional recognition, the ‘MBCS’ postnominal would be superfluous.
Thirdly, we have certifications for everything, pretty much: CCNA, MCSE, GCFA, GREM, CISSP… These are generally more indicative of a person’s competency. For this reason I’d argue that UKCHIP would be more appropriate for establishing a register of informatics professionals.

What the BCS does have, however, is the potential to become relevant earlier on in peoples’ careers. A person could technically apply for ‘affiliate’ status, and receive some mentoring and work on Continuing Professional Development plans. Although not well advertised, the BCS talks and the Turing Lectures are also first class in terms of content and the materials available. In fact, I’m considering membership primarily for the access to academic journals.