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Specification and Uses of Information Systems

Applications: Specification and Uses of Information Systems, and the Use of Information Technology in the Processing and Analysis of Health Services Information

Some definitions

Data are raw items collected.

Information is the result of applying various transformations to data ('processing') to derive something perceived as meaningful. Note that this depends to an extent on the perceiver.

Knowledge is a structure wherein information is interpreted and  used as a step towards a conclusion of action. It may be expressed in a formal way that computers can use; it may be implicit in organisational behaviour; or it may exist only in the minds of users.


Data: 95, 171
Information: process the data into the form 171/95
Knowledge: The figures represent undesirably high blood pressure, which should be  monitored and may be treated.

The health industry is a very data-intensive business. Ray Rogers, inaugurating the NHS Information Strategy in the mid 1990s cited the fact that the average 600 bed acute hospital generated as much data per day as the London Stock Exchange.

Information systems should be specified in the first instance by the outputs that  are required of them. That is to say, they should be purpose-driven. From these output are derived the data input and the various transformations to the data which are needed to arrive at the desired information. All too often, though, health information systems have been technology driven, without sufficient thought being given to the business purpose they are intended to fulfil. In general, information systems model the business processes of their organisations, and when these change the specification (and therefore the system functions) change also. This is a prime reason why large scale health computer systems have been much criticised: systems specified and implemented for one business model are often shoehorned to work under another incompatible structure, and inevitably fail to some extent. A classic example in the NHS is the combination of the Resource Management Initiative1 (RMI)and the Internal Market2.  The RMI was intended to enable hospital management to understand the contributions made to treatment by various parts of the service, to improve costing and planning. This formed a part of the Information Management and Technology Strategy, and funds for purchasing such systems were made available. However, the Internal Market required Health Authorities and GP Fund Holders to commission work from hospital, and for hospital to contract and bill for work done. Funds to support this aspect of the business were not made available, and as a result, many RMI systems were adapted to support the market processes and never accomplished their intended function.

Systems are also specified (in a slightly different sense of the word) in terms of access and confidentiality - eg what password restrictions or  physical separation the system should have.

The process of specifying information systems is multi-layered, involving a range of formalisms and methods that are the province of computer scientists rather the public health people. Users such as public health staff need to be able to assure themselves that they understand the outputs they are provided with, and that the systems meet security and confidentiality requirements, but need not concern themselves with the more technical aspects of the process.

For most Public Health work, the information available is collected for other purposes (eg recording acute care) and  the data item specifications, together with professional knowledge of how and why the data are collected,  are what we mostly have to work from. For the main NHS  systems the NHS data dictionary sets these out in detail:
[accessed 4/07/2008]

It should be borne in mind that though Information  Technology (IT) generally refers to the use of computers and telecommunications technology in information systems, manually maintained  pencil-and-paper records still constitute information systems.


1.      Andrew D. Brown, Managing Change in the NHS: The Resource Management Initiative, Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 1992, 13,6,13 - 17
2.      Department of Health, Working for patients, 1989, HMSO

© M Goodyear 2008