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Industry continues hunt for skilled health IT workers

The demand for skilled health IT workers remains high despite initiatives to boost health IT training.

The nationwide push toward electronic health records has put pressure on health care organizations to find skilled health IT workers who can implement and manage complex IT systems. But even with federally funded training programs pumping out thousands of graduates over the last couple years, the demand for workers with health IT training continues to outstrip supply.

The main source of health IT training is the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, which has awarded $116 million as part of the Health IT Workforce Development Program. Under this program, community colleges received $68 million and universities received $32 million to set up certification or degree courses focused on implementing and managing health IT systems. The ONC also gave $10 million to a group of five universities for the development of the curriculum used in these programs. Another $6 million went to the development of competency exams for health IT professionals.

The ONC has in large part met the goals it set for itself when it launched these programs. Mat Kendall, director of the Office of Provider Adoption Support at the ONC, said officials initially hoped about 10,500 individuals would receive training through the community college program. As of August 2012, 15,000 students had completed courses, with another 5,000 still enrolled in programs. The ONC set a goal of graduating 1,600 from its university program. Kendall said 820 have graduated already and 1,600 are enrolled in courses.

Even with the large number of graduates, however, there are still health IT positions that are going unfilled. "We've hit all the indicators that are out there," Kendall said. "That being said, this is a big field and there's lots more that needs to be done."

Demand for skilled health IT workers remains high

The College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) released a survey in September indicating health care executives are worried about staffing all the IT positions they have open. More than two-thirds of respondents said their organization currently faces a shortage of professionals with health IT training. A total of 59% said this shortage could affect their organization's ability to meet the requirements of the government's meaningful use program.

This is a new field. There's nobody out there who really has any experience in it.
Linda Meskodirector of the health IT program, Camden County College

Respondents to the CHIME survey did not think the ONC's workforce program has made much of a dent in the shortage. Only 12% of health care executives reported their organization had hired a graduate of the program. This doesn't mean there's a flaw in the federal program, grant receivers are quick to point out. Community colleges that have received funding say the grant allowed them to expand their offerings into an area that is growing and start training students for in-demand careers. Students say the funding helped open up new career paths for them. The reason so many positions continue to go unfilled is simply the size of the demand.

Lynette Higgins, program coordinator for HITECH grants at the Community College of Baltimore County, said her school was planning to launch classes and offer training on implementing and managing electronic health record (EHR) systems at some point, due to the strong demand for workers with health IT training. The ONC grant helped the school get the program off the ground sooner than it would have been able to otherwise.

Since the community college's program started in 2009, it has enrolled 292 students, 116 of whom are still taking classes. Because there are so many jobs available that require technical skills, graduates aren't staying on the market long. Higgins said a recent survey of her students indicated only a handful were unemployed after completing the program.

The impact of reform on demand for health IT training

Cassandra Umoh, a graduate of the health IT training program at the Community College of Baltimore County, said she sees many of today's jobs in health care demanding technical skills, thanks in large part to health care reform.

Umoh, a former Democratic candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates, found a position as a project director with a community health center after finishing her training. She said the skills she learned in the program improved her job prospects because the demands of the Affordable Care Act are forcing providers to move away from paper records by emphasizing care coordination. "We use technology for everything else, but now we actually use it for medicine," she said.

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The growing use of EHRs, driven by the HITECH Act and meaningful use program, has increased demand for professionals with health IT training in more places than just the doctor's office.

Linda Mesko, director of the health IT program at New Jersey's Camden County College, which also received ONC grant funding, said many of her students have gone on to find jobs with consulting firms and EHR vendors. The demand for health IT professionals from ancillary industries further highlights the need for qualified individuals.

"This is a new field," Mesko said. "There's nobody out there who really has any experience in it." She added that because so few health care workers have IT training, graduates of her school's program are very marketable.

Umoh agreed, saying individuals who receive heath IT training should find a number of career opportunities. "There are jobs out here, but you have to have the skill set."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Ed Burns, News Writer or contact @EdBurnsTT on Twitter.

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