CIO survey forecasts IT staffing troubles ahead

By Bernie Monegain
06:01 PM
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In West Texas, where unemployment is at 2 percent, the popular chain Chili's had to close some of its restaurants because there were not enough employees to fill the jobs. Imagine what it's like for a healthcare system in that part of the country to recruit IT staff, says Gary L. Barnes, CIO of Medical Center Health System in Odessa, Texas.

Barnes served as moderator of a panel on IT staffing shortages Wednesday at the CHIME10 Fall CIO Forum in Phoenix. He was not alone in worrying about staff shortages. The four-member panel – from Maryland, New York, Massachusetts and Tennessee – shared similar concerns. To boot, a new CHIME survey released Wednesday revealed that 51 percent of CIOs across the country are worried they will have to put off planned implementation of electronic health record systems if they don't find the people to get the job done.

That would mean forfeiting thousands of dollars in government stimulus funds aimed at encouraging the uptake and meaningful use of EHRs.

CHIME surveyed its members in September to assess the potential impact of staffing shortages on IT operations. Industry insiders have estimated a need for 50,000 new jobs. A total of 182 CIOs, about a third of the CHIME membership, responded to the survey.

"I think it's a local challenge for many of us," said George T. (Buddy) Hickman, executive vice president and CIO at Albany Medical Center in Albany, N.Y. There's competition among the healthcare systems in the region for IT help, he said.

Sometimes outside competition is able to offer higher salaries, said Mike Ward, senior vice president and CIO at Covenant Health System, a seven-hospital system in East Tennessee.

Sue Schade, vice president and CIO at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, part of Partners Healthcare said recruiting is different at Brigham and Women's because the hospital has an in-house built system. So she can't simply tap someone with Epic or Meditech experience, for instance.

"It's a very different ballgame," she said.

Douglas Abel, vice president and CIO of Anne Arundel Health System in Annapolis, Md., said losing a staff member is more difficult when the team is small. The loss of one IT team member from a 50-member staff is felt much more strongly than, say, the loss on a 200-member staff, he said. There are not enough healthcare IT job seekers in the pipeline.

"We're running scared right now," Abel said.

Schade commiserated. "A small organization can't absorb turnovers," she said. "Once they have those openings, they have nowhere to go."

Hickman said the situation is complicated and intensified by ARRA and HITECH, with a large demand for converting to digital now that is likely to diminish later.

"Already I'm thinking how do we manage the attrition of that."

Key findings from the survey are on the next page.

Key findings

  • More than 60 percent of responding CIOs reported that IT staffing deficiencies would possibly (51 percent) or definitely (10 percent) affect their chances to implement an EHR and receive stimulus funding.
  • CIOs expressed growing concern about retaining existing staff as pressures mount to quickly implement clinical systems.
  • More than 70 percent of respondents reported their organizations lacked staff to implement clinical applications.
  • CIOs reported they would used a variety of strategies to meet immediate needs, especially the hiring of third-party consultants, also hiring from within and train for health IT work, and tapping recruiters for help.
  • Slightly more than half of the CIOs responding said they would request budget increases to address the shortages, but for most respondents, spending increases are expected to be minimal in 2011.
  • The most commonly mentioned approaches for staff retention included flexible work schedules, telecommuting, employee recognition programs and training, education and development.
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