Healthcare IT jobs lucrative but tough to land

Sought-after healthcare IT skills include experience with electronic health record systems from Epic, Cerner, Meditech and other vendors

Companies in the healthcare industry are willing to pay a premium for scarce IT talent, but they're choosy about selecting new hires. For people with the right experience, it's a great time to be job hunting.

"If you're a solid performer and you've been working for a couple of years with products from Epic, Cerner, Meditech or any of the other electronic health record vendors -- and especially if you're willing to travel -- the sky is kind of the limit for opportunity," says Eric Marx, vice president of Health Care IT at staffing firm Modis. "You can pick and choose what you'd like to be doing and get paid very well for it."

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PwC describes the booming health market as one of the few bright spots in an otherwise sluggish economy. Healthcare spending will encompass nearly 20% of the U.S. economy by 2019, predicts the firm.

Specific to IT, research firm RNCOS is forecasting 24% spending growth in the U.S. healthcare IT market between 2012 and 2014. Mergers among vendors in the healthcare IT space is one reason for the surging revenue, RNCOS asserts, since M&A deals tend to spur technology exchange and development.

The biggest spending driver, however, is new government regulations -- and the tight deadlines associated with them. Providers and payers are preparing for compliance with regulations such as the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, which was enacted as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to promote the adoption and meaningful use of health information technology (including electronic medical records). The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), signed into law in March 2010, is also top of mind for IT departments as they ready their infrastructure to handle provisions such as expanded Medicaid enrollment.

The industry also is shifting to a new version of the medical coding standard, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10).

IT departments are under the gun to deliver new or upgraded tech solutions to support these regulatory changes. In 2010, healthcare providers spent $88.6 billion to develop and implement electronic health records, health information exchanges, and other health information technology initiatives, PwC says.

The impending deadlines (and potentially enormous penalties for noncompliance) are pressuring companies to hire IT pros with specific healthcare experience who can hit the ground running, Marx says. "It's a very, very tight labor market because of the deadlines. There's not a lot of time available for hiring managers to bring people up to speed who don't have vendor-specific experience," he says. "They typically can't take someone who has strong generalist IT experience, even if they're a superstar performer, and get them ramped up in time."

So does that mean IT pros without healthcare experience are shut out of the hiring rush? Not entirely, Marx says, though he's careful to caution job seekers to set reasonable expectations.

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Continuing education programs targeted at training healthcare IT professionals are generally geared for either clinical people, such as nurses and doctors, who want to learn the IT side, or for IT practitioners who want to learn the healthcare side. The more successful candidates to date have been the clinical-turned-IT people.

"What we've seen so far is that it's a bigger challenge for the IT people," Marx says. "A nurse may know exactly what a certain medical device is and what it does, or know anatomy and medical terminology having worked in a hospital environment. It's a much more challenging adjustment for straight IT workers."

Most healthcare CIOs say they prefer people who come with a clinical background and have increased their IT skills, he adds.

That said, IT people who take the time to get trained in healthcare technology can be successful getting their foot in the door at a healthcare company -- though they may have to sacrifice seniority and salary, Marx says.

"There's not a huge difference between coming out as a fresh college graduate and getting retrained in healthcare IT," he says. "After a year of experience, you'll be in good shape and then other hospitals and providers will be looking for you. But initially, that first step is the most difficult."

Most companies in the healthcare industry have relegated the majority of their IT budgets to achieving objectives related to electronic health records and ICD-10. That puts other strategic IT initiatives on a back burner -- but not indefinitely.

Looking ahead, Marx expects to see a significant uptick in business intelligence and data warehousing projects, which could benefit job seekers with related experience. "We're collecting tons of information and analyzing it and reporting it to the government. I don't think most places are going to know what to do with all that data. In a couple of years, that will be a really hot area."

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