Health Informatics & Sciences

What Is an MSN in Nursing Informatics? A Data-Driven Degree for RNs

What Is an MSN in Nursing Informatics? A Data-Driven Degree for RNs
Record-keeping and administration, it turns out, are a big part of nursing (and, in fact, all medicine). Image from Unsplash
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Christa Terry October 14, 2020

Nursing has become increasingly technical, creating a growing need for professionals to bridge the gap between clinicians and the data their patients generate. Nursing informatics master's degrees train nurses to do just that.

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Most people associate nursing with patient care, but the reality is that many nurses spend only 15 to 35 percent of their working hours engaged in hands-on clinical activities. Anywhere from 35 percent to 50 percent of their time is typically spent on documentation, care coordination, and administrative activities. Record-keeping and administration, it turns out, are a big part of nursing (and, in fact, all medicine).

Surprisingly, the adoption of electronic medical records (EMRs), prescription barcoding, smart IV pumps, and other high-tech innovations in nursing hasn’t done much to reduce the time RNs and advanced practice nurses spend on non-clinical activities. One study found nurses spent 33 percent of their time interacting with tech. In some cases, technological advancements in nursing may actually add new items to nurses’ to-do lists.

Nursing informatics is a sub-specialty of health informatics that aims to change that. Informatics nurses use data to make nursing more efficient and more effective. Nursing informatics can be highly technical. In some cases, it involves data analytics, informatics system analysis, database design, and even programming—making it a great field for ambitious nurses interested in how technology can enhance nursing care.

One way to transition into this specialization is to earn a Master of Science in Nursing in Nursing Informatics. Unlike accredited graduate programs for aspiring advanced practice nurses that teach high-level nursing competencies and include rotations, this master’s degree pathway for RNs is decidedly non-clinical.

In this guide, we answer the question what is an MSN in Nursing Informatics? and cover the following:

  • What is nursing informatics?
  • Do I need a master’s degree to work in nursing informatics?
  • How long does it take to earn an MSN in Nursing Informatics?
  • What classes do students in nursing informatics master’s programs take?
  • Do I need to be a nurse to enroll in a nursing informatics MSN?
  • Which schools have the top nursing informatics master’s programs?
  • How much do informatics MSN programs cost?
  • Is an MSN in Nursing Informatics all I’ll need?
  • What can I do with an MSN in Nursing Informatics?

What is nursing informatics?

The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society defines nursing informatics as “the specialty that integrates nursing science with multiple information management and analytical sciences to identify, define, manage, and communicate data, information, knowledge, and wisdom in nursing practice.”

This discipline is broadly defined in part because it’s relatively new as it exists today. There was a time when nursing informatics was primarily concerned with the implementation of EMRs to streamline documentation. Today, however, the role of nurse informaticist is most frequently defined by employers. Some nursing informatics specialists spend their days focused on data management and documentation software. Others design health information systems. Still others are responsible for using data science to improve patient outcomes. What a nurse does with an MSN in Nursing Informatics depends on two primary factors: what they learned in the program and how their employer approaches informatics in nursing.


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Do I need a master’s degree to work in nursing informatics?

You’ll find plenty of RNs with associate’s degrees in nursing and bachelor’s degrees in nursing working in informatics, suggesting it’s possible to transition from a clinical position into an informatics position without ever earning a graduate degree. Some of these informatics professionals have taken healthcare informatics courses, pursued informatics certificates, or earned one or more nursing informatics certifications (more on this below). Others haven’t completed any graduate-level coursework related to informatics and instead found their way into nursing informatics because the healthcare settings in which they worked offered on-the-job training.

Getting a master’s degree in nursing informatics, while not strictly necessary to work in this discipline, can give you an edge when you’re applying for work. You may be able to advance into positions in healthcare organizations that pay more and offer you a degree of autonomy you might not have had otherwise. You’ll also learn a lot.

“I think that the greatest benefit I gained from the experience was the sense of direction I was given in order to form my own perspective of nursing informatics (and health informatics in general) so I could apply and integrate myself accordingly into the healthcare system,” wrote RN Franco Louie Merjudio in a Quora thread about the degrees necessary to work in nursing informatics. “Plus, the wicked-cool systems that profs end up teaching in classes are kinda nice, too.”

How long does it take to earn an MSN in Nursing Informatics?

Most nursing informatics master’s programs offered by nursing schools require students to complete about 37 credit hours of work. A full-time MSN candidate can usually complete the degree requirements in about two years, while part-time students may take three or more years to complete an MSN in Nursing Informatics program.

Many programs are designed for working nurses, and online MSN programs abound. While these online programs focused on the informatics specialty are often billed as ‘full-time’ and can be completed over two years, they’re more flexible than you might expect.

What classes do students in nursing informatics master’s programs take?

You may be surprised when researching MSN in Nursing Informatics programs at how few core courses focus on patient care. That’s because MSN in Nursing Informatics programs are administrative, not clinical. In some programs, students don’t take any classes related to caring for patients. It’s essential to realize that an MSN in Nursing Informatics won’t lead to a nurse practitioner career. Once you read through the list of core courses below, it will be clear why.

Nursing students enrolled in the informatics program offered by University of Pittsburgh‘s School of Nursing, for instance, take the following core classes:

  • Applied Statistics for Evidence-Based Practice
  • Clinical Information Systems
  • Database Management
  • Ethics for Advanced Practice Nursing
  • Financial, Business, and Economic Drivers in Healthcare Management
  • Healthcare Quality
  • Information Technology Project Management
  • Informatics Theories and Issues
  • Leadership Development
  • Methods in Technology Evaluation & Usability
  • Public Policy in Healthcare
  • Research for Evidence-Based Practice

Students in the UPitt program also complete a nursing informatics practicum experience during which they work as an entry-level nursing informatics specialist for one term.

Do I need to be a nurse to enroll in a nursing informatics MSN?

MSN prerequisite requirements vary from program to program. Some colleges and universities have direct-entry MSN programs (master’s-level nursing programs for non-nurses) but these are typically designed for students who want to pursue nursing careers in advanced clinical patient care. Nearly all MSN in Nursing Informatics programs require applicants to have a nursing degree—usually a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)—and to be a licensed Registered Nurse. It’s pretty common for programs to prefer or require applicants to have at least one year of full-time clinical experience. Beyond that, some programs ask applicants to submit GRE scores while others don’t; some ask for a minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.0. In contrast, others want to see higher grades, and some require applicants to have taken a precise list of prerequisite courses.

Which schools have the top nursing informatics master’s programs?

Nursing informatics is a relatively new discipline. While plenty of graduate schools offer one or two informatics electives as part of the MSN degree curriculum, MSN in Nursing Informatics programs are still rare. That said, some of the best nursing schools in the United States with MSN programs offer informatics tracks or majors. These include:

How much do informatics MSN programs cost?

The typical per-credit tuition rate for nursing master’s degree programs is about $400-$700, regardless of specialization. Most MSN in Nursing Informatics programs fall into this range, though there are outliers. Highly ranked colleges and universities often charge more than $1,000 per credit hour. The per-credit tuition rate at Duke University, for instance, is about $1,900, though that’s to be expected given that it’s home to one of the best nursing schools in the United States.

Keep in mind that the per-credit cost of an informatics MSN doesn’t include any additional charges. Before enrolling in a program, be sure your budget has room for books, other course materials, fees, and other expenses. Students in MSN in Nursing Informatics programs have access to the usual kinds of financial aid, like federal and private loans, scholarships, and grants.

__Is an MSN in Nursing Informatics all I’ll need?

Having one or more certifications in addition to your informatics MSN can be useful when you’re job hunting for the simple reason that informatics as a discipline is so new that employers aren’t always sure how to screen applicants. Certifications can make your application stand out. Some employers even require nurse informaticists to have informatics certifications granted by nationally recognized certification programs.

Certifications for informatics nurses include the American Nurses Credentialing Center’s Informatics Nursing Certification (RN-BC) credential and the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society’s Certified Associate in Healthcare Information Management Systems (CAHIMS) and Certified Professional in Healthcare Information and Management Systems (CPHIMS) credentials.

What can I do with an MSN in Nursing Informatics?

The quick answer is that you can transition out of clinical nursing and into nursing informatics, which is one of the highest-paying non-clinical specialties in nursing. The average nursing informatics specialist salary is about $85,000. If your title is informatics nurse or nurse informaticist, you might earn more than $100,000.

Rise through the ranks to become director of clinical informatics, and you’ll earn closer to $116,000. In all these roles, you may never treat a patient. Still, the decisions you make will have a significant impact on the health outcomes of the patients in your facility.

What you don’t have to do after earning this degree is disengage from clinical nursing. RN Mark Sugrue, a nursing informatics specialist, worried that transitioning into informatics would mean sacrificing skills. He discovered, however, that there are plenty of ways to maintain clinical engagement. “Early in my transition to informatics nursing, I maintained clinical practice by working weekends and/or per diem shifts at the bedside,” he said in an interview with the informatics publication CIN. “The schedule was grueling, but I felt it was important. I missed the interactions with patients and families, and I was fearful that I would lose skills and my sense of clinical judgment. Although I still practice when I can, I have developed other ways to stay connected with the clinical environment. I maintain that staying connected to clinical practice is extremely important for the healthcare informatics professional.”

If you ultimately decide that you miss focusing on patients after working in informatics, there will always be openings in clinical care. The MSN in Nursing Informatics isn’t an advanced practice degree, but chances are that your program will have a clinical component. That means if you do decide to rejoin the patient-care world, you may be able to do so with a few new tricks up your sleeve.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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