Intended for healthcare professionals

Clinical Review ABC of health informatics

What is health information?

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 08 September 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:566
  1. Jeremy C Wyatt, professor of health informatics,
  2. Frank Sullivan, NHS Tayside professor of research and development in general practice and primary care
  1. University of Dundee.


    Information is an ethereal commodity. One definition describes it as the data and knowledge that intelligent systems (human and artificial) use to support their decisions. Health informatics helps doctors with their decisions and actions, and improves patient outcomes by making better use of information—making more efficient the way patient data and medical knowledge is captured, processed, communicated, and applied. These challenges have become more important since the internet made access to medical information easier for patients.

    This ABC series focuses on information handling during routine clinical tasks, using scenarios based on Pendleton's seven-stage consultation model (see box opposite). The articles cover wider issues arising from, and extending beyond, the immediate consultation (see box below). Questions on clinical information that often arise in clinical and reflective practice are dealt with, but discussion of specific computer systems is avoided (a glossary of terms appears on, and other glossaries are listed in the box at the end of this article).

    View this table:

    Some questions on clinical information

    Embedded Image

    Credit: JOHN GREIM/SPL

    Capturing and using information

    Consider the different forms that information can take, where each form comes from, its cost, and how to assess the quality of the information. These issues arise during a general practitioner's (Dr McKay) encounter with Ms Smith.

    View this table:

    Pendleton's consultation model, adapted for ABC series

    Dr McKay applies her own clinical knowledge and skill, perhaps augmented by a textbook or other knowledge source, to capture relevant data from Ms Smith. Dr McKay browses Ms Smith's record to check her medical history. She updates the record and either takes action herself, or telephones a consultant nephrologist (Dr Jones), who suggests 1α-hydroxy cholecalciferol 0.5 μg daily for Ms Smith. Dr McKay then follows up the telephone conversation with the consultant by issuing an electronic prescription. The prescription transfers …

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