Hospital Health IT Use Climbs, But Will Health IT Worker Supply Keep Up?

Posted on February 20, 2012 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare branding and communications expert with more than 25 years of industry experience. and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also worked extensively healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

This week,  HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that the number of hospitals using IT doubled over the last 24 months. Not coincidentally, she noted that HHS has handed out a truckload of incentive payments in recent times. More than 41,000 doctors and about 2,000 hospitals have gotten $3.1 billion in incentives.

As one might imagine, hospitals and practices are hiring on new professionals to manage all of this IT, ranging from EMR specialists to developers to “data exchange professionals” working on HIE-type projects. And looked at one way — from the federal government’s perspective, say — it’s great to hear that HIT investment is generating jobs.

The thing is, the health IT worker shortage everyone’s screaming about hasn’t gone away.  According to a recent brief from the eHealth Initiative, 25 percent of HIE initiatives have too few staffers in place with serious IT experience.  (My guess is that the number is at least that high in hospitals and even higher for mid-sized or smaller medical practices.)

The government has made some efforts to address the problem. As some readers may know, the Office of the National Coordinator’s Health IT Workforce Development program has workforce training programs in place to help meet the demand for health IT workers. The courses are being rolled out at nine universities and 82 community colleges. To date, apparently, more than 9,000 community college students have gotten health IT training, with 8,706 enrolled to train.

But even if these programs were turning out more than enough employees, it seems that employers aren’t yet confident about the quality of graduates. The same eHealth Initiative report concludes that very few HIEs are currently planning to hire or have hired workers from the workforce development program. The report doesn’t say why, but I’m guessing that it’s a matter of waiting to see how the program’s first few crops of grads work out.

This makes me wonder: Is there a way to turn out more health IT workers in a manner that would inspire the immediate urge to hire? For example, would a program routing Ivy League IT grads into health IT programs make a bigger dent? Would love to hear your thoughts.