A search on Google led Pamela Carter to the field of health information management and technology.
Striving to retool her career, the 46-year-old graduated from Community College of Baltimore County in the spring of 2012 and became certified as a Registered Health Information Technician.
Carter’s academic success and achievements are among reasons why she’s featured on the college’s website for its health IT program. But it wasn’t easy.
“I jumped into the field thinking, ‘I already have the anatomy and physiology background. And I have this and that (credential).’ But I was in for a rude awakening,” she said. “The anatomy and physiology was a good foundation. However, the rest of the curriculum had such a diverse vocabulary and terminology that it was like learning a new language.”
While Carter’s experience serves as a success story for the health IT sector’s progress, the emerging career field still faces staffing shortages. The number of online health IT job postings per month has increased by nearly 200 percent since passage of The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act in February 2009, to 14,512 openings in February 2012, according to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.
Healthcare executives are concerned they will not have adequate-sized health IT teams to implement upcoming federal health mandates. The narrow pool of established health IT professionals means medical providers, hospitals, insurers, drug and device companies and consulting groups may find themselves competing to recruit talent.
This environment has fostered many opportunities for college graduates. But health IT experts acknowledge that there is a need to more effectively communicate the career opportunities to students – or even professionals in other fields who might be able to apply their skills to the health IT sector.
The demand for professionals in health IT could also have a meaningful impact on U.S. employment numbers. Jobs for medical records and health information technicians are expected to jump 21 percent from 2010 to 2020, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
Growth and Demand Disconnect
A survey released in March by PriceWaterhouseCoopers found that healthcare companies plan to spend more this year on technology investments. However, heavy emphasis has been placed on re-examining hiring and promotion methodologies. Companies face hefty fines from the federal government if certain technology standards are not in place, particularly consumer access to electronic records.
“The challenge for healthcare is not just a shortage of people with technical skills. It’s also a shortage of people with the skills to marry technological savvy with business strategy as healthcare becomes more connected, coordinated and accountable,” Daniel Garrett, a principal who leads PwC’s health IT practice, said in a statement. He said the lack of qualified professionals could hamper progress toward improving quality and efficiency.
The disconnect between growth in the health IT sector and demand for professionals stems from people “realizing shortages are primarily related to evolving or transforming jobs based on technology and regulatory mandates,” said Bill Rudman, vice president of education and workforce development at the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA).
“Five years ago, you could enter that field with a high school degree and a certification.” Rudman said. Now, minimum entry into the field requires at least an associate degree, with more companies preferring candidates to have a bachelors, masters or doctorate degree.
Rudman, who is also executive director of the AHIMA Foundation, said there is growth across five employment areas: data governance, data integrity, analytics, privacy and security, as well as compliance and risk.
Rudman suggested those interested in the health IT field focus on a specialization that aligns with the five employment buckets, saying generalists at the associate level won’t be prepared to enter this job market.
Moving Health IT Forward
Steve Ullman, director of health sector management and policy programs at the University of Miami, agrees. Hospitals are spending $50 million to $100 million on IT systems, “but there is nobody to work on them,” he said.
“Organizations are lining up” for health IT graduates, Ullman said. He is working with an advisory board made up of professionals throughout the national healthcare community who provide guidance on meaningful curriculum guidance “in terms of how to meet the needs of the marketplace.”
The AHIMA has also launched a campaign dubbed “Reality 2016” to support growth in the health IT sector, said Rudman. The movement is focused on upgrading retention levels across AHIMA membership, by shifting associate degree holders to bachelors, for example.
Pamela Carter understands the growth in the field and the opportunity. Despite being employed with a health IT company in Maryland, analyzing patient appeal requests and records, she is back in school part time at Coppin State University with hopes of graduating next spring. Carter’s eyes are set on an upper-management position.