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Hospitals compete for IT talent with funding at stake

EHR use benefits patients but presents health care providers with hiring challenges

By Fred O'connor, IDG News Service
May 31, 2011 05:20 PM ET

IDG News Service - Health care providers in the U.S. are encountering a lack of qualified candidates as they race to meet federal government deadlines for EHR (electronic health record) and health IT use.

The challenge, medical CIOs say, is to find enough IT staff who can help hospitals and medical practices migrate from paper records to EHRs and manage the large amount of patient data generated from practicing medicine. At stake is US$25 billion in funding allocated in 2009 by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, for spending on EHRs and health IT. Medical providers will be compensated for the cost of the systems if they meet criteria by certain dates, with four key deadlines coming in the next six months.

With the government spending almost as much as the health care industry's total value of $27 billion, "you can imagine there's going to be a fair amount of hiring," said John Halamka, a doctor at and CIO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

To manage his hospital's EHR rollout, Halamka opted to outsource the task to a firm that specialized in EHR implementation and practice transformation.

"You will see a combination of approaches," he said. "Some may seek services from vendors, others outsource to groups. We'll figure out a logical way to leverage staff. Having every hospital hire their own is probably not going to happen."

Halamka determined that cloud computing best met the hospital's health IT needs and developed a private cloud. This required staff to support the cloud's infrastructure, and he hired workers with backgrounds in database development, wireless networking, security and server administration.

Equally critical are employees who grasp how introducing technology into medicine changes how care is administered.

"I need an analyst who really understands how it is you can take a paper-based office environment and then move it to this new world of using electronic records because it isn't just digitizing paper," said Halamka. "So they really have to understand how do you leverage the technology and change processes in order to move doctors from what they may have been doing for 30 years to a new world. You understand what the EHR does. You understand how tablets, printers and iPads are part of the equation."

Beyond IT skills, Halamka looks for candidates who "have a working vocabulary of health care" and are familiar with the industry's privacy, security, compliance and regulatory aspects.

Halamka also finds his organization competing with EHR vendors for staff. Candidates may find vendors' fast growth and lucrative salaries more appealing compared to a nonprofit hospital's offerings, he said. However, Beth Israel Deaconess' status as a Harvard University medical school hospital gives him an edge over private companies.

"There is some reputation at Harvard hospitals of being innovative," he said. "And to be part of that innovation is maybe appealing to people. People have different motivating factors. Generally when you are talking about a nonprofit you enjoy the atmosphere, you enjoy the mission. You feel the health care itself is something you are passionate about."

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