Help still wanted
Feds’ IT training program an untapped resource
I’m from the federal government, and I’m here to help you.” For any industry leader, including many in healthcare, those can be dreaded words. But when it comes to chronic staffing problems in health information technology, a federal health IT workforce development program is proving to be a welcome if not yet widely useful initiative, according to a number of healthcare provider organization leaders who participated in this year’s Modern Healthcare/modern Physician Survey of Executive Opinions on Key Information Technology Issues.
Federal officials estimate that the healthcare IT sector has a labor shortage of about 50,000 people. Again this year, the survey responses indicate a competitive recruiting environment.
More than half of them (54%) reported they hoped to be increasing IT staff levels in the next 12 months, with the median increase 10% and the average 17%. Also, 58% of respondents indicated they were having a tough time recruiting or retaining IT staff, an ongoing concern.
Last year, 54% of respondents reported having staffing challenges; in 2010 it was 49%. While those results are not longitudinal—the same survey takers were not tracked over time—the upward trend may accurately reflect the zeitgeist, with poaching of staffers by IT developers cited as a new threat.
Of those who said they were having staffing difficulties, the most common problem mentioned (by 45% of those respondents) was a lack of available IT professionals in their local markets. Another 32% indicated the high cost of experienced IT professionals was a problem.
Poaching of current staff ranked third on the leaders’ problem lists, with 23% citing IT vendors or consultants as their top competitors for talent while 20% called out other provider organizations as employee raiders. Rounding out the top five most-cited problems, 18% of respondents blamed the typically small margins in the healthcare industry for their staffing troubles.
“There are not enough people right now and it’s only going to accelerate,” says Gary Tiller, CEO of 25-bed Ninnescah Valley Health Systems, Kingman, Kan. “I don’t think you’ll ever get caught up with it.”
Riding to the rescue—at least that’s the objective—is a federal program created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and overseen by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology at HHS. ONC has provided a little more than $68 million thus far to what’s informally called the Community College Consortia Program to fund six-month health IT training courses at 82 schools across the country.
Its first wave of about 3,000 certificate-hold- ing graduates hit the streets last April.
Most survey respondents (56%) indicated their organizations haven’t hired a graduate from the federally funded, community college IT certificate program. However, 35% of survey respondents were unsure whether they’d hired or had already employed workers connected with the program. That high level of uncertainty indicates program graduates and administrators could do a better job at self-promotion.
Nearly 12% of respondents indicated at least one of their current staffers was enrolled in the federal health IT certificate program.
Just 9% of respondents indicated they thought their organizations had hired a worker from the program. But survey respondents also said they’ve developed pipelines into their local community colleges that were not among the 82 community colleges listed by the ONC as participating in the consortia.
“We hired a guy from the Wichita Area Technical College, which is funded by the state Board of Regents,” Tiller says. “He has just done a knockout job. But he got called up for (military) reserve duty, so we hired a second one from over there. We’re going to keep both of them. They’re fitting the bill just perfect.”
Theresa Pallanti is director of health IT grants at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Ill., a member of the ONC consortia. Pallanti says the school has had 150 graduates out of 418 students who had enrolled in the 25 completed “cohorts” since the program launched in September 2010.
A mid-program adjustment, allowing students to withdraw to meet unexpected family emergencies, should reduce the attrition rate, but the government-imposed, six-month time limit for all others makes the program tough on students, Pallanti says. The average age of enrollees is in the mid-40s, she says. Many enrollees “are busy career professionals and have obligations and find it tough to deal with 20 to 30 hours a week, because of the six-month requirement.”
Another adjustment, switching from being initially a hybrid, on-campus and online program to one that’s fully online, also should help students stay the course, Pallanti says.
The program was designed to draw people with IT backgrounds and train them in the ways of healthcare, as well as take healthcare people and train them in the ways of IT. So far, though, provider organizations have been giving the bulk of the jobs offered to graduates with healthcare backgrounds, Pallanti says.
“The difficulty is finding placements for those who don’t have healthcare experience,” Pallanti says, adding that as federally incentivized health IT adoptions increase, workforce demand will increase, too, so she doesn’t see employer cherrypicking as a long-term problem.