Although health care is one of the largest industries in the country, many communities experience health care workforce shortage problems. This is not a new issue, but the introduction of health care reform and the stimulus package for health IT have added a new category for consideration.
Most health care technology leaders agree that there is a shortage of skilled workers for the current healthcare IT projects, such as the Electronic Health Record. Over a year ago, “Characterizing the Health Information Technology Workforce: Analysis from the HIMSS Analytics Database” stated that if the healthcare system was to move toward advanced IT systems, at least 40,000 additional health IT professionals would be required. Since that report was released, the prognosis for health IT has grown considerably.
The workforce for this initiative cannot simply be pulled from existing IT venues. Hospitals have specific needs and specific workflows that require IT specialists to have a meaningful understanding of working in a busy emergency room or hospital setting with busy health care providers. IT infrastructure will need to be maintained in these health care setting, requiring specialists who understand and can accommodate the presence of patients and ongoing medical activity. All of these specific types of job requirements cannot easily be found in existing IT jobs.
Health care providers—doctors, nurses, etc. – have a standing requirement to maintain continuing education hours; this arrangement provides a convenient venue to train them on the adoption and employment of new technologies. However, a similar large-scale program to train IT specialists to function within a health care setting seems to be lacking.
Currently, there is not a consensus about the exact skills and expertise that this new health IT workforce should have. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act does include provisions to support educational institutions in expanding their programs to include health IT, but a clear idea about what the precise skill sets this workforce should have remains uncertain.
There has been a call for a national approach to this situation; some feel the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) needs to spearhead the effort to find the best way to train a workforce to develop and manage this new technology within the health care system. The ONC can conduct a national survey to ascertain exactly the best mix of skills and knowledge, and how to best prepare a workforce to achieve this mix. Certainly, it remains clear that technological investment can only be truly successful if it also invests in the correct development of human capital.