Off the Charts

Off the Charts

The days of a clipboard hanging on the foot of a hospital bed holding a stack of papers are long gone. Building on the verity that information is power, Brenau now actively pursues broader professional skills, like those of nursing professor and health informaticist Sandra Allen, to teach Brenau students how to harness health information for better patient care.

Sandra Allen has been a nurse for 30 years, but she’s spent the last two decades focused on data – more specifically, how to gather, interpret and use data to make health care better for patients.

Dr. Allen’s specialty is health informatics, a field that develops the use of information technology, such as electronic health records, to manage health care data and help health care professionals and hospitals take better care of patients.

Those records are designed to hold every piece of information about a patient’s health that might impact care – vital signs, medications, allergies, test results and more – and make all of those pieces instantly available to health professionals who need the information to make better decisions. How well that process works, however, depends on how clinicians – nurses in particular – capture what happens to patients in the hospital.

“Health informatics is transforming how nurses take care of patients and how we actually deliver care,” Allen says. Now, she’s working to make sure Brenau’s nursing graduates are ready for this revolution.

She joined Brenau in February as the chair of undergraduate studies for the School of Nursing. Her primary role is to provide Brenau graduates with the skills they need to succeed in a health care system that is driven by data against the backdrop of an increasingly enormous demand for high-quality care. That includes knowing their way around health information technology.

Dr. Sandra Allen, assistant professor and undergraduate chair of nursing at Brenau.
Dr. Sandra Allen, assistant professor and undergraduate chair of nursing at Brenau.

“Technology is one of the things that helps us meet those demands, but it’s also creating additional demands. Nurses today have to be computer literate, but also information literate,” Allen says. “We want to make sure that when our students graduate, they’re prepared to walk into that care setting, and to function and perform at a high level.

“It used to be you would write on paper everything that happened with your patient. But today, you can go in and retrieve data that was buried in a chart. You can graph and trend it instantly. It can help guide the decision-making that can give us the best patient outcomes possible. And you’re no longer chasing the paper chart around the hospital.”

Sandra Allen
Dr. Sandra Allen, assistant professor and undergraduate chair of nursing, scans in a barcode on a syringe in the simulation center on Brenau’s East Campus in Gainesville.

Informatics in health care remains a relatively new field, but Allen is a longtime veteran. She grew up in the Indiana town of Selma, an eight-mile straight-line shot on state Highway 32 from Muncie in the east-central part of the state. After Allen graduated with honors from Ball State University, she began her career literally in the place she began her life – as a nurse at Ball Memorial Hospital in Muncie, the hospital where she was born. By the time she completed her 18-year tenure there, she had been in charge of choosing and implementing an automated system that enabled nurses and doctors to create care plans for their patients more easily.

Academically, Allen earned a Master of Arts in gerontology from Ball State. She earned a second master’s degree – this one in nursing – and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from Loyola University in New Orleans.

As a nurse and health informaticist, Allen has spent much of her career bringing informatics systems to health care institutions in several states, most recently as the director of the Cardiovascular Institute of Carolina at Aiken Regional Hospital in Aiken, South Carolina, and earlier in her roles in Jacksonville, Florida, at St. Luke’s Hospital and Baptist Health System. She has helped build informatics systems and processes from the ground up, customizing and implementing informatics technology systems and training nurses to use them.

Sandra Allen
As a nurse and health informaticist, Sandra Allen has spent much of her career bringing informatics systems to health care institutions. Brenau nursing school graduates must be prepared for the information- and technology-based transformation of their profession.

She also has the unique perspective of being the parent of a Brenau student: Her daughter, Britney Allen, is enrolled in the Master of Science in clinical counseling psychology program. Dina Hewett, director of Brenau’s School of Nursing, said that Allen’s informatics experience helps her know what it takes for nursing students to be job-ready.

“We know we need to make sure our students understand informatics, what it is and why it’s so important now,” Hewett says. “While we do use a lot of the same technology to simulate how students deliver and document care, the student needs to understand what’s happening in the background that makes all of that happen.”

Allen seems to have settled nicely into her new role.

“Of all the jobs I’ve had, this is the only one where you walk in and feel like everyone welcomes you with open arms,” she says. “The faculty work hard together for the benefit of the students. It is an amazing experience. I just feel very honored to be here.”

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