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June 4, 2012

Today’s Most Wanted: Qualified HIT Workers
By Robert J. Murphy
For The Record
Vol. 24 No. 11 P. 8

An array of strategies and resources can help CIOs satisfy a burgeoning demand.

Healthcare organizations, from hospitals and multiclinic medical systems to sizable private practices, are scrambling to deal with a widespread shortage of employees who possess both HIT and clinical-application skills to implement and manage clinical information systems.

The numbers tell the story: From 2010 to 2020, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 21% increase in the number of jobs in the rather broad category of “Medical Records and Health Information Technicians.”

Chief information officers (CIOs) are turning to multiple sources to fill critical roles from the lower rungs to the managerial ranks. Some are drawn from a range of internal talent whose experience is largely clinical yet who can attain the necessary IT knowledge and skills to bridge the gap between the clinical staff on one side and back-room IT technicians on the other. Those with clinical experience are especially valued for their knowledge of workflows and the ways in which HIT systems can satisfy clinical applications.

“The technology piece is not the hard part to learn,” says Charles Anastos, a principal in the HIT Provider Enterprise Transformation Practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “It is an understanding of the application of the technology in play, not the technology itself. People with experience in the use of technology in workflows and patient care and overall operational efficiency are needed.”

CIOs also recruit external experienced HIT people nationwide for permanent hires, often with the assistance of an employment consulting firm. An increasing number of healthcare organizations are turning to recent college graduates as more universities devise curricula tailored specifically to meet employer demands for applicable skills and knowledge. And because some HIT projects, such as implementing a clinical information system or transitioning to an EHR, have limited life spans, term-contract employees are attractive to help fill the demand to put these projects into practice.

As if hiring were not a tough challenge in itself, employers must consider ways to retain talent. With a heavy demand for qualified individuals, employers are looking to obtain and develop not just technically and clinically adept candidates but also those who demonstrate loyalty.

These are multifaceted and daunting challenges. However, employment consultants, CIOs, industry organization professionals, and educators have ideas on how to navigate these largely uncharted waters.

Internal Hires: The Talent Within
Many HIT hiring managers begin their talent search by disseminating job postings to attract nurses, lab technicians, and physicians within their organizations who combine clinical experience with IT education and training. Sometimes you find many such individuals are looking for new challenges within the present workplace.

There are numerous advantages to hiring internally. “The good news is that they usually have relationships with various departments,” says Linda B. Hodges, senior vice president and IT practice leader at the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. “They are known to people there, so they can be quite valuable in terms of really being able to communicate and work with those different department heads. They are also people who have credibility within the organization.”

Current employees offer more than just strong interdepartmental relationships and credibility. There’s also the matter of loyalty. In a job market where qualified HIT people are constantly being recruited by other healthcare organizations and staffing agencies nationwide, company loyalty is viewed as a cardinal virtue.

“Hiring from inside the system brings us people who are loyal to the system,” says Matthew Chambers, CIO of Scott & White, a 115-year-old healthcare organization based in Temple, Texas, with 14 hospitals and 60 clinics. “They’re people who have been here forever; they believe in Scott and White; they want to see it succeed. They embody our culture and commitment to quality.”

External Hires: Entry-Level Graduates
Many healthcare organizations hesitate to hire entry-level college graduates, preferring to recruit candidates with experience in clinical departments or with proven IT skills. However, such a strategy may be neglecting a rich pool of talent eager to apply its knowledge and skills in the healthcare field, one of the few job markets that continued hiring even as most industries curtailed adding staff.

“[Scott & White] saw a lot of people who were interested in healthcare, and there’s a lot of interest coming out of the colleges,” Chambers says. “We’ve had success recruiting from a program at The University of Texas at Austin.” Several learning institutions, including the University of Texas and Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, have obtained funding from Health and Human Services to develop HIT education and training programs.

 “In my experience as the director of the certificate training program here at Weill Cornell, I’ve found that employers value formal training as long as it combines classroom experience with very practical job skills,” says Jessica S. Ancker, PhD. “Some informatics programs focus heavily on theoretical concepts, which is appropriate for people going into research. However, for people who are going directly into the workplace, applied skills are the most relevant.”

Hiring recent graduates also sets the stage for a potentially fruitful mentoring experience in the workplace. “The traditional model is you take people out of school and it’s very much a mentoring type of relationship,” Chambers says. “You hire 22-year-old people and grow them into what you want them to be.”

External Hires: Experienced Professionals
The holy grail, particularly when it comes to filling managerial HIT positions, is to recruit experienced professionals who have implemented and managed clinical information systems and the teams required to make it all run smoothly. CIOs and their staffs may be able to recruit such highly sought-after talent on their own. Otherwise, they may turn to employment consultants to broaden the recruitment search nationwide if necessary.

“Those with technical expertise, the experienced hire, that’s where we tend to leverage external staffing agencies,” Chambers says. “Basically, we write a requisition and say, ‘Go find this person.’ You’ll pay a premium because of their expertise. We’ve got a great recruiting team right here on staff. And they do recruit nationally, but they recruit everyone from nurses to DBAs [database administrators], so going to specialized staffing agencies where that’s all they do every day, that lends an extra degree of capability.”

Contractors: Limited-Term Talent
In cases where organizations wish to implement a clinical information system or coordinate a shift to an EHR in pursuit of meaningful use incentive payments, CIOs know in advance that the workforce demand will spike in the near term, only to taper off when the project is completed. In such cases, the most prudent option may be to enlist a staffing agency to recruit HIT contractors with skill sets narrowly tailored to the project at hand.

“Some may be independent contractors, and some may come through a particular consulting firm that does this for a variety of clients across the country,” says Hodges, an executive search consultant. “Often they can provide some very experienced talent to meet very specific needs that you may not be able to find and hire. That’s one way to bring in talent that you may not be able to hire on a full-time basis. They may also want to do it for positions that they don’t think will be long term. They may bring in people who are just going to be tied to the implementation.”

Leverage Your Resources
No one denies that the demand for qualified HIT employees outstrips the current supply. It’s a daunting challenge for any CIO looking to staff a large healthcare organization to carry out extensive HIT implementations and manage clinical applications. As such, it’s important to keep in mind several valuable resources at your disposal, such as the following:

• qualified and loyal internal hires;

• employment consulting firms to help recruit highly qualified permanent and temporary talent;

• career advisory and training services from industry associations such as HIMSS and the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives;

• training centers at clinical information system vendors such as Epic;

• and university education and training programs with useful placement services, including job fairs.

The growing demand for qualified HIT talent is not about to diminish anytime soon. Proper planning and being able to cast a wide net can help meet that demand.

— Robert J. Murphy is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.