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Shortage of health IT workers hits home with physicians

Experts recommend some creative strategies to ensure that practices get the technology help they need, when they need it.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted March 25, 2013

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Evidence is mounting that the health information technology work force shortage predicted several years ago is happening and that it’s affecting physician practices, even though many don’t have in-house IT staff.

As health care organizations work to meet requirements for the meaningful use incentive program, the demand for talented IT staff has grown, according to a report PwC’s Health Research Institute published in March.

The study, based on a 2012 survey of health care chief executives and interviews with IT and human resource professionals, found that demand has grown among not only health care organizations but also insurers and big pharmaceutical companies that need staff to analyze and integrate data sources. Some are meeting their needs by hiring new employees, and others are doing so by buying up technology companies, which the report said reduces the pool of IT talent into which health care organizations can tap.

The report follows a 2012 survey by the College of Health Information Management Executives of 163 hospital and health system CIOs, which found that 67% were experiencing IT staff shortages. Fifty-nine percent said staffing challenges will negatively affect their ability to meet requirements for the meaningful use electronic health records incentive program. The PwC report didn’t put a number on how many health IT workers would be needed to alleviate a shortage.

As hospitals scramble to meet their staffing needs, they are hiring professionals from boutique consulting practices and bringing them in-house, said John Edwards, director of PwC’s Health Industries Advisory Practice.

“Some of those same companies that provided outsourcing support for large hospitals or provider groups probably also supported the small physician groups in their IT needs,” Edwards said. “So that’s going to put a different level of stress on those outsourced services than we’ve seen in the past.” That is having an effect on physician practices looking for IT help with electronic health records and other technologies.

How to find IT help

Physician practices can use some of the same remedies that hospitals can employ to combat the shortage, Edwards said. Other remedies are unique to practices.

Develop talent. In the hospital environment, this might mean hiring someone with an IT background but not necessarily a health care background and teaching them the required skills through accelerated learning courses. In the physician practice, this could mean developing talent among employees who are willing to learn new skills.

Create strategic partnerships. Hospitals and practices are coming together as more accountable care organizations are formed. The backbone of ACOs is technology, and entering an ACO arrangement might mean sharing technology and staffing resources with other ACO partners, such as insurers, hospitals and physicians. Edwards said physicians should think about this as many practices aim to be the head of an ACO.

A Feb. 19 report by the Leavitt Partners consultancy counted 202 physician-led ACOs on Jan. 31, nearly triple the number from six months previous. If physicians don’t think about their health IT needs in addition to their clinical needs, they may find themselves unable to fulfill their obligations as ACO leaders.

Cast a wider net. Edwards said placing a job ad isn’t going to be enough for most health care employers. He suggested looking into creating direct pipelines with work force development programs and schools.

The Health and Human Services Dept. Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology launched a health IT work force development program in 2010 aimed at training people to meet the growing demands for talent. As of September 2012, 15,500 students have graduated. Edwards said many of the graduates have not been hired by health care organizations, because there’s a perception that they lack real-world experience.

Nearly half of students entering the program have at least 10 years of experience in health care and more than a third have at least 10 years of experience in IT, said Norma Morganti, executive director of the Midwest Community College Health Information Technology Consortium, composed of 17 of the ONC work force development programs, in the PwC report. Most are working for health IT vendors, because the hospitals and physician groups wouldn’t hire them.

The report suggested that health care organizations look to diversity and inclusion programs that help underrepresented candidates find jobs. Edwards said participating in programs like these is a great way for practices to fulfill their staffing needs while giving back to the communities they serve.

Practices also can explore internship programs with local colleges. The challenge will be having someone on hand to train them, he said, but “you can get great value from interns.”

There are many ways to fill the work force gap, Edwards said. “It really requires a more focused plan. What are the skills that we need? What are our options? What’s going to be our plan? Then let’s execute that plan.”

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External links

“College of Healthcare Information Management Executives 2012 CIO Survey,” CHIME, September 2012 (link)

“Solving the talent equation for health IT,” PwC, March (link)

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