Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

A Career in Medical Informatics

Posted in Articles, Careers, Medicine, My publications, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on June 1, 2002
After the interest he received after we published his profile, Mohammad Al-Ubaydli further spells out how to have a career in medical informatics
If you want to understand why I love technology, take a look at my hearing aid. Just before starting my house job, my nightmare scenario was of being deafened by the vacuum cleaner during the ward round while my consultant barked orders at me. So I invested in a funky, digital hearing aid. With the flick of a switch, the machine promptly filters out all noise, and homes in on the speech of the person I am facing. It is quite amusing to watch my (very nice) consultant needing to (very nicely) ask the cleaner to switch the vacuum off.
Technology helps me to be a good clinician, despite my disability. Using information technology within the NHS enables every clinician to increase their abilities. Unfortunately, the NHS has been particularly slow in introducing computers into the system. But things are improving.
This article is about steps you can take to improve your computing skills. The more useful this exercise becomes for you, the more you can delve into the area. If, like me, you become hooked, there is the possibility of focusing your career on the new specialty of Medical Informatics.
Some myths
But before I get that far, let me clear up a few myths on learning about computers. Firstly, you are never too old to learn, and computers are not the exclusive domain of your children/grandchildren. It was my father who taught me how to use a computer, and his skills were self-taught.
Secondly, you do not need to have a degree in Computer Science before you are allowed to play with a computer. Remember that every day as a doctor you learn new skills by applying the “see one, do one teach one” principle on living patients. Learning on a computer is far easier (and safer).
Finally, just because you are not going to specialise in medical informatics, it does not mean you cannot improve your clinical practice by learning about computers. In the same way, just because most doctors do not become surgeons, it does not mean most doctors should not learn how to suture.
Where to start
So, how do you begin dabbling in computers? The simplest and cheapest way is to get a book. From personal experience, I recommend the Dummies Guide series of books. Don’t be patronised by the title. The books are simply designed to quickly get your skills to a level good enough to be useful. Even if these books are not your style, there are literally hundreds of other books for all levels and most tastes. This is not a neglected market.
Free courses
But learning from a book can be a lonely pursuit. Sometimes it’s good to have a teacher setting the pace and going over the difficult concepts. A surprisingly good (and free) solution to this is the Barnes and Noble University. Barnes and Noble is the largest chain of bookstores in the US, (and the world). Its website, although not yet beating Amazon’s, has an interesting feature. The University section runs courses continuously. You can sign up for these for free, and most of them revolve around computers. The company’s hope is that you will buy the “set text” from the website, but it is certainly not a requirement.
Formal Tuition
At some point, you may decide you need formal tuition. For me, it was the local polytechnic. I took a gap year before joining medical school, and I still look back fondly to that year for the academic freedom it gave me. At the beginning, various lecturers advised me on the best courses to take. Unlike medical school, I was allowed to disagree with all of their opinions, study what I wanted, and skip everything else. The teaching was excellent, and the students are from an entertainingly diverse range of backgrounds.
Most universities and polytechnics offer the European Computer Driving License as explained in a previous career focus article.
An increasing number of universities are now offering courses devoted to using computers within a medical setting. UCL, for example, runs an excellent MSc in Health Informatics. Health professionals from around the country are gently introduced to the issues involved in deploying IT, and then given a solid understanding of how to assemble solutions.
A Career in Medical Informatics
Such an education sets you up for a career in medical informatics. The NHS has great need for such professionals, and posts are springing up at a quickening pace. During medical school I spent a lot of time at the Clinical and Biomedical Computing Unit (CBCU) in Cambridge. The team, led by Dr Rashbass, combine excellent IT skills with a playful curiosity. They try out every gadget to see how it might improve clinical practice. After graduating, I worked there as a fulltime researcher for six months. It was a steep but enjoyable learning curve, and provided a different mindset as I began my house job.
My experience in working in CBCU also illustrates an important point in searching for such IT jobs. I did not answer an advert in the press, or search the internet for job postings. Rather I asked around for any doctor at my university who was doing computer research. Almost every answer I got included Dr Rashbass as the expert, so I made a trip to his lab. As this new specialty evolves, with no formal career structure yet in place, you must use your networking skills to find out about the jobs available.
A stint in the US
Furthermore as part of your career plan, you must consider a stint in the US. Institutions there are years ahead in IT usage, and their budgets dwarf anything the NHS has contemplated to date. The budgets of the National Institute of Health, in Washington, and Stanford Medical School, in San Francisco, are about as big as they come. The folks at NIH, for example, are responsible for Pubmed, while Stanford’s Ted Shortliffe is a living legend in these circles. Furthermore ,the US already has a large and prestigious College of Medical Informatics.
There are many opportunities for making the trip across the Atlantic. During my elective, for example, I worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the atom bomb. My work was in peacetime, you’ll be glad to know, and related to WHO influenza vaccine schedules. My work also got me a comfortable car (rental paid) and a comfortable salary. Meanwhile my colleague Dr Laura Dean landed a contract designing websites for the NIH. Again, the salary was refreshing, but even more importantly the intellectual and social life in the Institute is extraordinary.
On our return to the UK, it was disappointing to see the state of the nation’s IT infrastructure. But we see opportunity. The NHS is undergoing change at an incredible pace, and new positions are being created. An education in medical IT is increasingly important as the NHS upgrades its facilities. Some day every hospital in the land will be as digital as my hearing aid.
Mohammad Al-Ubaydli
Mohammad Al-Ubaydli is a doctor and programmer. Currently he is working as a PRHO at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn, Norfolk. He also lectures and consults on the use of handheld computers in medicine. Recently, he co-founded Medical Approaches, a non-profit organisation which provides a free, peer-reviewed medical textbook for use on all handheld computers.

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mo@idiopathic.comThis email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it
Further resources
Dummies Guide books –
Barnes and Noble University –
Open University –
University College London CHIME –
Cambridge University CBCU –
National Institute of Health NCBI –
Dr Laura Dean’s elective –
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laura@idiopathic.comThis email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it
My elective in Los Alamos –
Published 8th of June 2002 in the
British Medical Journal careers section