Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

November 19, 2012

Breaking Into the HIT Job Market — The Importance of Tech Skills and How to Overcome a Lack of IT Know-How
By Juliann Schaeffer
For The Record
Vol. 24 No. 21 P. 6

Two years ago, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology estimated that the healthcare industry would require an additional 50,000 HIT workers by 2015 to help organizations meet meaningful use criteria. With unemployment numbers still high in many parts of the United States, it stands to reason that healthcare facilities looking to fill spots would not go wanting for candidates.

But some say not so fast, noting that HIT jobs can be more difficult to fill than IT positions in other industries because they require experience in both healthcare and IT. Even prime candidates could face being turned away because they lack the perfect combination of job skills, particularly those related to IT.

While noting that jobs in the HIT industry are definitely out there, Frank Waterstraat, RHIA, PhD, MBA, program director for the University of Wisconsin (UW) Health Information Management and Technology online degree program, says hiring teams are looking for “qualified” individuals. “The usual scenario is [companies or healthcare organizations] can find an individual with the appropriate IT skills, but they have no knowledge of the healthcare industry,” he says. “The job prospects should be very good for people who have strong computer software and management skills along with an understanding of the healthcare environment.”

But what about those in healthcare who don’t have a boatload of IT skills? Are they being excluded from the chance to enter the HIT field? Christy Spilka, a talent acquisition director for Precyse, says this may happen at some companies or healthcare facilities but certainly not all.

“This boils down to a company’s recruiting strategy and the quality of its recruiting team,” she says. “If your strategy is to post your positions on a few tech job boards and wait for the perfect applicant to fall into your lap, then you will likely be one of the companies failing to fill open positions. Additionally, if a recruiting team is not trained to ask the right questions and dive deeper regarding the requirements and job description of the position, they will likely fall into this pattern. But just because there is a three-page list of requirements [for a job posting] does not mean the manager expects to see someone proficient in all of them. Asking the right questions, understanding the job requirements, including cultural fit, and having the right recruiting strategy is key.”

In her position, Spilka has witnessed IT workers seeking healthcare positions and HIM professionals such as coders applying for HIT roles, adding that while Precyse recruits the best available talent, “We are also realistic about our expectations and have a multipronged recruitment strategy.”

A Balance of Healthcare and IT
Waterstraat says many healthcare facilities have openings for systems implementation and training positions, particularly those centered on meeting meaningful use requirements. “The demand is for individuals who can implement and train healthcare personnel to use EHR software,” he says, adding that this involves more than just coding and data storage. “As [such], we are preparing our graduates to not only track vast amounts of data over time but to also translate it into useful information that practitioners can quickly access.”

In addition to implementation-specific roles, Spilka says HIT companies are looking for employees to fill positions in areas such as sales; software, database, and mobile app developers; database administrators; and tech support. The technology background necessary for employment depends on the position, she adds.

For most HIT jobs, Waterstraat says a balance of both IT and healthcare knowledge will be necessary to get the job done right. “[Workers] need to understand the health data and the information systems used to capture, analyze, and report the data,” he says. “It is a double-edged sword: You need to understand the data and its related application as well as the tools used to manage the data.”

Limited budgets and compressed time schedules are a factor in seeking out these skill sets, says Scott Briercheck, chief scientist at Precyse. “Companies don’t have time and budgets to wait for technology novices to spend months or years developing the insights and experiences that help make a successful IT worker,” he says, adding that it isn’t so much about a particular degree or set of IT skills, “It’s knowing how to apply that set of skills to the unique circumstances that each situation presents.”

Briercheck notes that if companies sit around waiting for the perfect candidate with just the right mix of healthcare experience and IT skills, they might short themselves in the long run “because they may miss someone who brings other skills to the table,” he says.

“Even more importantly, companies need to look at the skill sets of their team because a balanced IT team can do a lot to alleviate pressure and deal with unexpected situations that inevitably arise,” he adds. “A balanced team can have room to nurture a promising candidate who has most but not all of the desired skills as long as that candidate has the dedication to cross the gap and learn what is needed.”

In addition, because technology changes so quickly, Briercheck says job candidates would be wise to examine the umbrella of skills they possess that might benefit a company more than just experience with specific types of IT. “Specifically, solid reasoning and problem-solving skills, critical thinking, organizing, communication through written and verbal means, and a positive high-energy attitude,” he says. “On top of these, they need to layer their direct IT skills—or very similar skills that are adaptable—to the job they seek.”

Spilka agrees, noting that while technical skills may be at the top of the list of what employers look for in a candidate, an aptitude and attitude for learning new things are nearly as important. “Sometimes with the right combination of attitude and technical skills, a lack of technical skills in certain areas can be overlooked,” she says, adding that this approach is highly dependent on the position. “If you have someone who has a high aptitude for learning, great interpersonal skills—if it is a team environment or client-facing position—and shows passion for their trade and a desire to excel, an employer may be more willing to train in those areas for improvement.”

What Job Candidates Can Do
Finding that perfect position for which a worker is uniquely qualified is no easy task, but Briercheck says HIMers or others interested in the HIT industry should absolutely pursue their dream whether or not they possess IT skills. In fact, there are several strategies those lacking in IT knowledge can employ to help them get a call back from interested employers.

“Regardless of whether you think you do or don’t have all the requisite technology skills, the best way to decide is to measure,” Briercheck says. “Start by making a skills inventory of what you have and compare it to what you need. Begin by simply making a list of your technology skills in one column. Include systems and technologies you have used as well as the domains in which you have used them. Also include software tools and languages.”

Next, he suggests candidates scour the help wanted ads and ask themselves the following questions:

• What areas do you aspire to work?

• What skills and technologies do you see referenced in the ads?

• What software, systems, languages, or tools do you see in use?

“List these acronyms and skills in the second column,” he says. “Now it’s time to compare what you have vs. what you need. This can help you decide where to direct your improvement strategies.”

Then increase your IT knowledge base any way you can, according to Briercheck. “One way to learn is to study about a particular skill or technology online,” he says. “For example, you can download many free online courses and tutorials as well as supporting software packages that are free open source or at least available on a trial basis before you have to purchase. With this material, you can build sample projects that illustrate the technologies you are trying to learn far more richly than simply reading a book about it.”

Tech-related community or online college courses also can help. Waterstraat says online programs such as the HIMT program offered across campuses of the UW system can be a convenient option for people who are already working full time but seek to round out their expertise. “UW’s bachelor’s degree in HIMT is designed to prepare professional staff to work effectively as teams, have a wider breadth of medical knowledge, and embrace a long-term vision for sharing and exchanging information across multiple organizations to make a positive change in patients’ outcomes,” he says.

And all IT-interested candidates would do well to remember that at its basic level, IT is about problem solving, Briercheck says. “A big part of IT is problem solving, and there is really no substitute for getting your hands into an IT problem and trying to figure it out. Connecting to developer communities on the Web, reading tutorials with code samples, and extending the published work of others are all great ways to learn fast without having to reinvent the wheel for every area that you want to get some experience.”

— Juliann Schaeffer is an associate editor at Great Valley Publishing Company.