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July 18, 2011

How to Fill HIT Staff Needs
By Maura Keller
For The Record
Vol. 23 No. 13 P. 6

In a storage room in a small community hospital sits a $50,000 database server that’s never been used. The system is supposed to let medical personnel access information about patient health information from workstations throughout the facility. Thus far, all it’s done is collect dust.

The process of updating the network, training users, and upgrading workstations proved more costly and complex than expected at a time when hospital administrators across the nation have clamped down on spending and taken a cautious approach to adopting technology. But all that is changing as healthcare organizations try to take advantage of the financial incentives laid out in the meaningful use criteria. The work required to reach this goal is creating a high demand for qualified HIT professionals.

“Some HIT and government leaders say we need up to 50,000 new HIT workers by 2014, so there are too many openings and not enough HIT talent to go around,” says Bonnie R. Siegel, FHIMSS, a partner at Sanford Rose Associates. “Luckily the talent pool is growing, but slowly, with current non-IT healthcare workers moving into IT and nonhealthcare IT professionals obtaining positions in technology, security, business intelligence, and project management in healthcare organization. And more clinicians, like physicians and nurses, are moving into IT roles.”

According to Encore Health Resources President and CEO Dana Sellers, recent studies have documented that the escalating demand for HIT talent has been driven primarily by the need to meet federal mandates for the meaningful use of EHRs and by the emergence of quality-based reimbursement models that will demand the use of HIT and business analytics going forward.

A survey of HIT professionals conducted by HIMSS Vantage Point found that nearly three-quarters of respondents representing provider, vendor, consulting, and other related worksites indicated they had hired full-time employees (FTEs) over the course of 2010. Two-thirds said they had the budget to hire additional IT FTEs in 2011.

“Further, clinical informatics professionals and implementation experts surfaced as two areas for which respondents anticipated their organization would need to hire staff as the industry transitions from traditional paper-based records to electronic technology,” Sellers says. “These were also the areas in which respondents report a perceived staffing shortage that would impact their organization’s ability to handle future work. Finally, this HIMSS survey found that 60% of respondents anticipated that IT projects would be slowed down either because appropriate staff couldn’t be hired at their organizations or because nonprovider organizations could not hire the staff needed to assist their clients.”

As potential HIT candidates flood the market, how do healthcare organizations find the best people for the job?

It’s important to note that candidates are drawn to the field for various reasons, Siegel says. ”Some are drawn by their love of data and computers and how these tools can improve patient care,” she notes. “Others are drawn to HIT because of the need for more patient safety and quality measures that improve the patient’s experience and reduce medical errors. Others are drawn to the mission of healthcare in general and to feel good working in healthcare and using their IT expertise to help patient care.”

According to industry reports, the pool of HIT talent is growing and seemingly better educated. More students are looking to obtain degrees in fields such as health informatics and medical informatics. The number of students pursuing HIT, project management, and nursing informatics certifications is also growing.

“The pool of HIT talent with more than five years of leadership experience with electronic medical record and computerized physician order entry expertise is still small, but it’s growing as more hospitals, medical groups, academic medical centers, and IDNs [integrated delivery networks] implement advanced clinical systems,” Siegel says.

As Sellers explains, because employers will continue to actively seek out these skills in potential new hires, hospitals should consider graduates from university-based informatics programs, those who hold a master’s degree in healthcare administration programs, and experienced nurses and other clinicians with process and systems exposure.

For large projects that will require maximum resources, Sellers says health systems might consider using outside help. “Consultants can provide a boost to such projects by supplementing an organization’s team with members who have worked on similar projects before,” Sellers says. “Knowledge transfer should be a major goal during the course of the engagement, leaving the organization with the proper levels of staffing and a stronger set of skills when the project ends.”

“Hospitals can hire HIT consultants on an interim basis to fill much-needed roles, such as implementation experts and clinical transformation experts, and fill other gaps in HIT talent on a short-term basis,” Siegel says. “Some hospitals or health systems can outsource to consulting firms on a more permanent basis their network and infrastructure management and application support needs.”

Experts agree that in-house candidates are always a good choice. “They bring a combination of political savvy, organizational credibility, and knowledge that is invaluable,” Seller says. “Information technology leadership should always collaborate with organizational colleagues, such as chief nursing officers, chief financial officers, and chief medical officers, to identify future resources with an interest in HIT career paths.”

Siegel says many hospitals have IT savvy clinicians (eg, MDs, RNs, pharmacists, med-techs, radiologists, respiratory therapists), biomedical engineers, and HIM professionals who are IT superusers in their own departments. These individuals are ideal candidates to make the move to managers, directors, specialists, or even senior leadership roles in IT.

Sellers suggests organizations also consider collaborating with their human resources department to develop an internal informatics career path to formalize HIT skills development, including the formation of a training program.

As reimbursement strategies change, professionals with quality, finance, and medical records training are becoming increasingly important to performance improvement. These types of qualified candidates also possess skills that are needed in the HIT arena.

Large healthcare organizations faced with the task of hiring a C-level HIT executive sometimes turn to outside help to support the search. “When they need to find high-level HIT executive leadership … hospitals should consider hiring an experienced HIT executive recruiter to do a retained search for best results,” Siegel says. “A retained executive recruiter will be financially committed to do a national, in-depth, and thorough search for the best person to match the organization’s needs and find someone who is committed to staying.”

To avoid hiring underqualified candidates, healthcare organizations should use formal job descriptions and seek out candidates with professional certifications such as CPHIMS, RHIA, and RHIT.

“Hospitals may feel rushed to fill a gap in their IT staff, but they need to be careful in vetting candidates and to be patient in the search process,” Siegel says. “It is a candidate market for highly qualified clinical IT professionals since this is the most sought position right now. Hospitals also need to be aware that clinical IT/informatics leaders with over five years of leadership experience and vendor-specific EMR expertise are in high demand and their salaries are highly competitive.”

Sellers says recruiters should ask for demonstrated experience—professional certifications are interesting, but they don’t replace real life. “Ask candidates to explain what they’ve really done,” she says. “How have they dealt with problems and turned around real crises? How have they learned from their mistakes? It’s hard to find a substitute for wisdom.”

— Maura Keller is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.