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Siobhán O’Connor: a career in health technology

Siobhán O’Connor

“The best thing about working in tech is you can apply it anywhere!”

14 December 2015

I never thought when I entered the nursing profession I would be able to use my previous career in information systems and technology in healthcare but I couldn’t have been more wrong!! Studying technology subjects in school and at university, whether its hard core computer science or more blended degrees like the one I did in Business Information Systems, gives you so many more options right throughout your career because computing is one of the backbones of any organisation so it’s used in every single industry in the world.

In particular, the digital health field has been growing exponentially over the last number of years. Even though it is still in its infancy the possibility of applying all sorts of technology, from mobile apps, to various Internet services, social media, wearable technologies and the emergence of Big Data and the Internet of Things, is huge and is why I now love working in health technology. There is lots of scope for creativity so I can develop and apply my own ideas which as a nurse I know will help patients who suffer with various chronic illnesses like diabetes or asthma or the technology I create or apply will support older adults who want to live independently.

The best part of my job is seeing the software development process come to life and watching as an application is taken from design, right through to development and implementation where people actually get to use it either at home or in a clinical setting like a hospital or residential care facility. I especially enjoy co-designing health technologies with nurses and patients via interactive workshops as many software applications and hardware devices are quite generic and not really personalised to the needs of individuals which can turn people off using them. So my research is quite interdisciplinary and I spend a lot of time working with colleagues in engineering and computer science to get the technology right because getting positive feedback from nurses and patients who use such apps to manage data and improve health is really fulfilling. This is why having some technical knowledge is quite useful as I can interact people from different backgrounds and translate the needs of patients and clinicians into a language that they will understand and vice versa.

One challenge of working in a cross-cutting field like nursing informatics is trying to keep up with all the latest technical developments as technology is always moving on at such a fast pace. There are people all over the world, in both private industry and public institutions like universities, researching different aspects of eHealth so keeping on top of this can be difficult. I usually travel to international conferences as part of my job so I can learn about the latest health technologies coming out and I visit the United States and Silicon Valley quite a bit as the world’s largest tech companies like Google and Microsoft are pioneering new digital systems that can be used in health.

The National Health Service (NHS) is quite good at introducing innovative technologies like telehealth systems or electronic personal health records which are currently being evaluated to enhance people’s access to their own health data and improve their interaction with local health services. So more careers in nursing and health informatics are going to be available in the years to come and we definitely need more skilled technology graduates that want to work in all areas of healthcare. At a national level people work to develop eHealth policies and strategies around information sharing and data governance within the Department of Health or they might work in an agency that generates population health statistics. At the managerial level within NHS trusts people look after computer systems such as electronic medical records or collect data digitally to manage wards, units and hospitals more effectively. In frontline services nurses and doctors use technology to improve the care they deliver to patients so having a technical background will give you endless career opportunities. 

Siobhán O’Connor, Lecturer in Nursing Informatics, University of Manchester

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