Canadian Journal of Nursing Informatics


This article was written on 20 Mar 2016, and is filled under Volume 11 2016, Volume 11 No 1.

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To code, or not to code

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Software Column

by Allen McLean, RN, MN, MSc, PhD(c)

Allen is currently a PhD student in Computer Science at the University of Saskatchewan in the Computational Epidemiology and Public Health Informatics Lab. His research interests include the development of computer modeling and simulation software for addressing health systems challenges, chronic diseases and health inequities at the population level, as well as machine learning techniques applied to large health datasets. Allen previously attended the University of Victoria earning an MN and MSc (Health Information Science) in a unique dual degree program for Nursing Informatics professionals. Allen has over 20 years’ experience in healthcare as an ultrasound technologist, clinical educator, team leader and community health RN.


CodingI’ve been involved in a friendly debate with several colleagues recently, and the question has sparked some surprisingly strong opinions on a subject I would not have thought all that controversial. ‘If you identify yourself as a nursing or health informatics professional, should you know how to code?’ I think this is an interesting question, from both philosophical and practical perspectives. We have come to no consensus, and likely will not. But maybe we are asking the wrong question? Perhaps the question is better phrased as ‘If you identify yourself as a nursing or health informatics professional…would it be helpful – or useful learning how to code?’

Straight off, I will confess a strong bias towards the more technical aspects of nursing informatics. That’s not to say I believe we should all learn software programming; however, if you are at all curious please read on.  Learning to code offers many benefits to those who are so inclined, and the fundamentals of coding are no more difficult to understand than much of what we all learned in nursing school. Honest!

  1. Computers are everywhere, and they all run on software. We use technology for almost everything, yet very few people really know how to read and write code. Learning to code puts you in the driver’s seat, and allows you to actively shape the future of nursing informatics.

  2. Learning to code is often assumed to be a dark art that only genius tech-types can master. Not true! Coding is no harder than learning a foreign language; and as with a foreign language it takes time, commitment, and practice. Anyone can learn to code. In a few hours you can pick up the basic skills, and in a few weeks you will be able to build useful applications and websites.

  3. Coding promotes computational thinking; the combination of mathematics, logic and algorithms. Computational thinking teaches you how to tackle large problems by breaking them down into sequences of smaller, more manageable problems. Computational thinking is a skill that everyone should learn. It will help you understand and master technology of all sorts, and solve problems in almost any discipline.

  4. Learning to code has never been easier. There are options to fit almost every interest, budget, background, and schedule. Everything from simple YouTube videos to intense ‘Hack Schools’ await you. I recommend people start with a free, online course such as any of these excellent offering from MIT (2015), Lynda (, Codecademy (, and Coursera ( Python is a great language for beginners, also Javascript (not Java).

  5. Learning to code, even a little bit, rapidly builds credibility and improves communication with the IT staff. An appreciation for the complexity of their work is positive for all concerned.

  6. Coding is fun. Really! And writing a useful program, or developing a mobile app can be very satisfying, especially a program or app applied in nursing or healthcare. Enjoy!


MIT. (2015). Introductory Programming.

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