Understanding information management systems is a key part of career progression, explain Kate Marsden and Jean Gilbert

Today’s health informaticians need to know the theory of information management to successfully deliver the national IT programme. Over the past six years Derby University's IT in health and community care degree has been meeting this need for the Midlands and South Yorkshire.

The course was first delivered in September 2001. Since that time, the university has seen two cohorts of students graduate with the degree.

Many NHS professionals have studied at Derby on this step-on step-off part-time programme. This flexibility allows clinicians and those whose work is not predominately in health informatics to understand the basics of information management. For the health informatician, it provides a formal professional and academic qualification.

Close ties

The course relies on a close working relationship between the university and the strategic health authority. While funding is an essential component of this association, time, support and health professionals for lecturers have also been crucial.

One of the most rewarding aspects of this venture is to see the progress and achievement of the students. They are all professionals working in the health environment, usually with full-time jobs and families. One student who has now completed the programme said: 'I started the course as a medical secretary in an acute trust and since then have gained promotion to a programme manager at the strategic health authority.'

Another student commented: 'When my director left very quickly, I had to take the helm in many informatics and performance issues. This has included preparing and presenting reports for the executives and trust board. My profile has been raised greatly in the last few months. I feel I could not have done this without having the belief in myself in all key areas of informatics, which I did not have before the course. Also, the fact that I gained a first-class honours degree in IT has been widely publicised in the trust news.'

Holistic benefits

Students can gain many different things from the programme. One student who works in public health said: 'The programme helped us have an holistic view of healthcare today and our role in it. It has emphasised the importance of high-quality, timely information and given me an overview of the information process, flows and its uses within healthcare. It has helped me interpret national strategies into local guidance and action.'

Not only has the programme challenged the students academically but it has also made them look at their own practice, especially following discussions during teaching sessions. One of the most important aspects of the programme is to bring professionals from different health sectors together to share ideas and good practice and to understand how the NHS works from different perspectives. Discussing issues with representatives from primary care, secondary care, mental health and the ambulance service can be a memorable experience.

Times are changing; the professional qualifications and how they are being delivered is being transformed. This creates a challenging time for the programme but Derby is already looking towards the future. It is important that courses like this are not allowed to disappear. The quality of such programmes should be encouraged not just for the sake of the many students who put so much effort and time into completing their studies but to remember that what they have achieved is reflected back into their workplaces.

Kate Marsden was formerly the health informatics and e-learning network lead at East Midlands SHA. Jean Gilbert is a senior lecturer at the University of Derby.