Help still wanted

Feds’ IT train­ing pro­gram an un­tapped re­source

Modern Healthcare - - SPECIAL FEATURE -

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.

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