Citing the need for 50,000 new health care information technology jobs during the next five years--just to achieve meaningful use of electronic health records--the federal government in 2010 awarded $84 million in stimulus-funded grants to create intensive health I.T. curricula lasting six months or less in community colleges and 12 months or less at four-year universities.

The I.T. training programs were spurred by the HITECH Act's intent to accelerate adoption and meaningful use of electronic health records and related technologies by spending billions of dollars on the EHR incentive program.

As providers adopt EHRs and other information systems, they--and vendors--have found it difficult to find I.T. professionals proficient in next-generation computer systems and networks. "If you're looking for people with skills in 20- to 25-year-old technology you'll find them quickly," says Ray Desrochers, COO at payer software vendor HealthEdge Software Inc., Burlington, Mass. "But skills in modern I.T. technology are lacking."

Charles Friedman, chief scientific officer at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, agrees that there is no shortage of health I.T. applicants. "It always comes down to the level of people who are qualified to do the job."

A September 2010 survey of 182 CIO members of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives found more than 70 percent say their organizations lack the information technology staff to implement clinical applications. Fifty-one percent report that I.T. staffing deficiencies possibly will affect their chances to implement an electronic health records system and qualify for meaningful use incentive payments; 10 percent say the shortage definitely will have an adverse affect.

Further, 76 percent of respondents have concerns about retaining existing I.T. staff. One-half of respondents report their organization will have little or no additional funds to spend on increasing the I.T. staff in 2011. Many surveyed CIOs expect to implement various programs to retain staff, such as flexible work hours, telecommuting, recognition programs, and education and professional development initiatives.

The federally funded training programs are expected to reduce the shortfall of skilled health I.T. professionals by 85 percent according to David Blumenthal, M.D., director of the federal Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, in an Oct. 12, 2010 blog posting. "The highly trained and specialized personnel developed through these programs will play a critical role in supporting physicians nationwide as they transition to EHRs."

A feature story in the February issue of Health Data Management will explore the workforce shortage and the training programs being rolled out now.

 

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