Patients are supposed to be the ultimate beneficiaries of the federal government’s electronic health records incentive programs. But there is another group that is benefiting from the EHR push — IT professionals.
In fact, even as the unemployment rate went up throughout the past few years, local health care organizations were creating well-paying jobs for those who were both tech-savvy and had health care experience.
The problem, however, was that the pool of candidates with this combination of talent wasn’t very deep.
About a year ago, Catholic Health Initiatives announced it would hire 200 specialists across the nation as part of a $1.5 billion program to enhance clinical information technology across its network of 72 hospitals, including Franciscan Health System’s South Sound hospitals.
The clinical information technology project, which includes plans for systemwide electronic health records in both the acute care and ambulatory settings, a health information exchange, and physician and patient portals, requires a significant increase in a number of specialized positions — including technical analysts, clinical informaticists, engineers, managers, database administrators, application developers, and security- and identification-management personnel.
The organization reports that after a year of looking for qualified applicants, it still has some positions available.
“It’s really all of these skills directly related to electronic medical records that I’m struggling to find,” said Tracie Grant, director of recruitment for CHI. “These jobs are in demand across the country right now and they are in short supply. From a recruiting perspective I’m already seeing it. I’m paying higher wages.”
Kim Giglio, director of talent acquisition programs at MultiCare, said she also has found that applicants are lacking when it comes to health care experience. But she said MultiCare has made a significant number of hires recently, nearly quadrupling its staff working on IT function.
In 2005, MultiCare had 77 people working in IT function. That number jumped to about 300 last year.
The number of information technology employees at Franciscan Health System has increased 36 percent since April 2005, when the system had had 78 IT employees. In April 2011, there were 122 IT employees at Franciscan.
“The growth of the IT function was faster than our overall work force,” Giglio said. “A lot of that is due to the electronic medical records and the system put into place to maintain (them).”
Kerry Miles, IS site director for the Southwest Washington service area of Providence Health and Services, said the health system’s hospitals were using a variety of EHR systems. But about a year ago, officials decided to move everyone to the same system.
Rather than hiring a batch of new employees, Providence chose to internally move 400 employees to a team that would be in charge of initiating the new system and then backfill the vacant positions from the outside. Altogether, he said, the company hired about 100 to 150 new employees.
Like at many of the other health systems, Miles said it was important to have a mix of skills within the team in charge of the electronic records system. For Providence the mix was 50 percent IT employees and 50 percent from specific business and clinical aspects of the health organization.
Preparing for dream jobs
No matter the pace of hiring occurring at the health care systems, most in the industry are in agreement that the technology needs and demands of health care organizations will only intensify.
So while it might not necessarily be working within an EHR program, there are likely to be IT positions available for the taking during the next few years.
“You are starting to see a merging of IT and hardware. Almost everything we use in patient care has a computer component to it,” Giglio said. “The definition of what an IT worker does is changing. There’s going to be more and more opportunities, I think, for folks in this field.”
And while the work is not necessarily easy, Bruce Elkington, chief information officer for the Franciscan Health System, described the IT health care positions as “dream jobs.”
“The pay is good, the benefits are good and the outlook over time is good,” he said, adding that he has even talked to his own children about health care IT as a career.
However, it appears the message Elkington is delivering to his children is not necessarily being sent out to others who could benefit from knowing what type of specific IT jobs are available in this market. So, both MultiCare and Franciscan are working with local universities to build some kind of training program.
Gabe Akiyama, a MultiCare senior recruiter, said most of the schools he has approached have been receptive about adding elements to their curriculum which focus on health care IT.
Giglio said one of the biggest obstacles for health care systems is that students often are focused on working for a big technology company, like Microsoft or Google, so they miss out on other opportunities.
Improving health care
While some folks might worry that patient care will suffer because of all the attention being paid to technology, Elkington said the actual impact will be positive for patients.
He said nurses will be able to use technology to decrease the amount of time they spend on things like paperwork and thus will have more time to spend with their patients.
“The use of information technology will continue to drive costs down and quality up,” he said.