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Lack of healthcare IT workers slows tech progress

Tech workers skilled in informatics are the most-sought

The U.S. healthcare industry is facing an even more significant IT worker shortage than previously thought, and that shortage is slowing efforts to roll out electronic health systems.

A new analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Health Research Institute showed that the shortage of health IT (HIT) workers has healthcare providers scrambling to fill the talent void by recruiting technology specialists from other industries.

The PwC report cited a recent survey by the College of Health Information Management Executives (CHIME) that showed 67% of healthcare CIOs are experiencing IT staff shortages, up from 59% in 2010.

Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed by CHIME said staffing challenges will negatively impact their chances to receive incentives from the government's three-stage program for implementing electronic health records (EHRs) and the meaningful use of them.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has dispensed more than $7.7B in reimbursement payments to more than 307,000 healthcare professionals and 4,000 hospitals deploying EHRs under government guidelines. In order to meet guidelines, healthcare providers must attest to three different stages of so called "meaningful use" of EHRs.

When healthcare CEOs were surveyed, 51% said they were concerned by the speed of technology change and 77% said they expect changes to their talent search strategies.

But the shortage goes beyond HIT workers with technical skills.

"It's also a shortage of people with the skills to marry technological savvy with business strategy as healthcare becomes more connected, coordinated and accountable," said Daniel Garrett, PwC's HIT practice leader. "Despite billions of dollars spent investing in HIT, the lack of qualified professionals could slow progress toward quality and efficiency. The benefits of HIT will not be realized until organizations can ensure information is unlocked and integrated in a way to best inform critical business and clinical decision-making."

PwC's report comes on the heels of a recent survey of 298 senior IT executives at healthcare firms, which found that 21% fear they won't be able to find the tech staff needed to complete an e-health system. Healthcare providers are facing federal pressure to implement EHRs and a massive, new medical coding system known as ICD-10.

The IT executive survey by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) also found that 51% of respondents plan to increase IT staff in the next year -- mostly personnel that can build clinical applications, such as computer physician order entry systems and EHR systems. Staffers are also needed to build clinical applications (34%) and network and architecture support (21%).

PwC's report showed that 75% of healthcare providers are now hiring new employees to support their IT priorities, and 37% they believe clinical informatics will be the most important skill for achieving their IT priorities. Clinical informatics specialists transform data into information used to improve care delivery.

Systems and data integration skills were in second place among those surveyed, with 28%, and technology and architecture support as well as data statistics and analytics were named by 10% and 9% of the respondents, respectively. Fifteen percent said they didn't know what IT skills were highest on their priority list.

Healthcare executives revisit IT talent strategies

The survey found that 54% of health insurers have acquired another organization in the past year, and with industry consolidation comes the need to integrate systems and data. Not surprisingly, insurers ranked systems and data integration skills as most important to meeting HIT priorities, and 89% think it is very important to have employees trained to integrate and analyze data from various sources.

Seventy percent of insurers said it will be very important for new hires to have informatics and data analytics skills over the next three years.

Meanwhile, drug and device companies need to support emerging methods of conducting research and be able to prove the value of drugs to public and private purchasers. Thirty-nine percent believe it is important for new hires to be skilled in health economics outcomes research.

In the biopharma industry, there's a growing need for HIT workers who are skilled in economic outcomes research and bioinformatics who can prove the value of drugs, the PwC report said.

"The IT organization remains the critical connector to delivering real-time data and metrics to make smarter business decisions," Garrett said. "Despite differing IT priorities, general IT staffing needs across the industry reflect a shared goal of improved health outcomes - particularly as payment shifts from a fee-for-service model that rewards value over volume."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

Read more about healthcare it in Computerworld's Healthcare IT Topic Center.


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