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Human Resources: HIT or Miss

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Where will healthcare IT find the techies?

If the implementation of electronic health records matches the hype, it will revolutionize healthcare delivery in the United States. The new generation of electronic health records will be expensive and very complex, requiring the people who run them to possess strong critical-thinking skills and a hybrid set of abilities and experiences from the clinical, business, and IT sectors. Where will we find them?

It's not clear how many people will be needed to make HIT run effectively. Some studies have estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 new HIT workers will be needed, but those estimates were made before the federal government in February committed nearly $20 billion to HIT implementation in the stimulus package.

David Hunt, MD, CMO in the federal Office of HIT Adoption, says the flood of HIT funding could make the workforce shortage issue more acute in the short-term, as hospitals and other healthcare organizations struggle to make the 2011 deadline to meet the as-yet undefined "meaningful use" requirements for HIT. He says the workforce issue has "consumed" the Office of the National Coordinator for Healthcare IT. "We have a shortage, no question," Hunt says. "It scares us a little bit when we realize that if everyone bought into our dream of fully functional health IT and every provider in the country picked up their phone and said ‘Yeah I want it. Give it to me now,' we would be in trouble because we would have a tremendous and profound shortage of those who could do the work involved in implementing this."

An American Hospital Association member survey this year found that 25% of responding hospitals don't have the staff or the expertise available to address the IT issue. Rick Wade, senior vice president of communications at AHA, says that larger issues in the healthcare reform debate have pushed HIT staffing into the background for the short-term. However, he says there is wide belief in the hospital industry that the down economy could provide a rich source of experienced IT people from other hard-hit industries, like the financial sector. "We are going to have to look on a couple levels," Wade says. "We have to figure out a strategy to take IT professionals from other disciplines and orient them to healthcare, and then look at the educational system and the places where they are training people who are specializing in healthcare issues to beginning to look at healthcare IT as a piece of the curriculum."

John Bosco, CIO of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, says qualified HIT staff is out there, "but we have to work hard at it." While Bosco believes the financial industry and other sectors can provide some of the people needed for generic components like infrastructure and security, he says most of those people lack the critical understanding of healthcare business needed for HIT. "It's a pretty long lead time to bring somebody in with IT experience and no health experience and get them productive. There is a lot of training and time and expense," he says.

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