Graduates must prepare to enter diverse and complex job market in rapidly changing healthcare sector
The healthcare sector is undergoing a technological revolution, system-wide reform and major user expansion all at the same time, presenting a daunting task for educators grooming the next generation of health IT professionals.
As colleges and universities search for new ways to adapt and keep pace with a rapidly changing healthcare landscape, the academics on the front lines contend that these days, health IT training must be wide-ranging in scope and include more than the technology component. It must embrace theoretical topics such as healthcare policy, as well as practical issues such as hospital management.
“Any health IT person needs to know something about all of those things,” said William Hersh, professor and chair of the Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical epidemiology at Oregon Health and Science University. “They don’t have to be a doctor or nurse, but they have to have an understanding of economics, business operations, privacy and security, and health information exchanges.”
Some health IT educators point out that the ever-changing nature of the healthcare delivery system itself is one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to selecting the right health IT training path.
“It’s a moving target that we are training for because it is so dynamic and changing so quickly and presents unique challenges. But I also think that there are wonderful opportunities for educational programs such as ours,” said Dr. Leanne Field, the program director of UT Austin’s health IT program.
“We have 90 percent job placement for students seeking jobs in health IT,” said Field. “The jobs are out there and our students are being sought after by employers because of the hands-on training that they have.”
Adapting Programs to Changing Industry
UT’s program is unique, says Field, because they partnered with industry early on to create their curriculum. Students work with a variety of electronic health record programs and have access to a health information exchange lab that gives them the opportunity to use two different software systems.
Right now employers are asking for students with more training in the areas of data analytics, project management, workflow processes and redesign, she said.
“The idea is not to make them an expert in any of the EHR or HIE systems, but to give them familiarity with the systems and hands-on use so they can then dive deeper when they are employed either by a hospital system or by a vendor or consulting company,” said Field.
Thomas Browning, a former UT Austin student with a certificate in health IT, is part of the training team for the implementation of the Epic EHR at Scott & White Health Care in Round Rock, Texas. Based on his experience with the UT program, Browning said, ”Figuring out how to harness the results of those implementations is going to be a really big thing. How do you deal with huge quantities of data?”
With many healthcare organizations in the process of implementing electronic health records, some health IT programs are shifting their focus to analytics and business intelligence. Experts predict that the next generation of IT health professionals will have to understand both the domain of health and health care as well as public health, in addition to understanding the technology.
“It’s a tall order,” said Hersh. “They may not understand the technology as much as a developer who is writing code for an app, but they really need to understand the technology and how to use that technology in a way that benefits something whether it’s health care delivery or personal health.”
Shortcomings and Funding Shortfalls
Not everyone is satisfied with the level of training, however. Joe Miccio, vice president for client services at Divurgent, an Austin, Texas-based healthcare consulting company, says that while some programs are very successful at preparing students, one area of deficiency is health IT programs that don’t provide enough concentration on workflow and process.
A former hospital chief executive and advisor to the health IT program at UT Austin, Miccio said it’s important to understand how workflows and processes occur in a hospital or physician environment and then take a look at how technology can be applied in those day-to-day interactions.
Some programs could also face a funding challenge, since federal subsidies are being phased out this year. The ONC’s Health IT Workforce Development Program has awarded $116 million in funding for community colleges and university-based programs. But funding for the majority of community colleges ended at the end of March, while the university program is scheduled to end in September.
While it is clear that the ONC funding cuts will have an impact on health IT programs, educators assert that interest in health IT will not wane going forward.
“I suspect that enrollment will drop off a little bit,” said Hersh. “We had robust enrollment before ONC funding, but we have plenty of people enrolling, there’s no lack of interest.”