Community college training of HIT professionals questioned

By Diana Manos
10:47 AM
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Is the federal program delivering?

WASHINGTON – The government plans to fork out a total of nearly $70 million in grants to five community colleges assigned with leading a federal healthcare IT training program. But is the Community College Consortia to Educate Health Information Technology Professionals delivering?

Since its inception in March, some think it’s not – at least not yet. At a recent meeting of the Health IT Policy Committee, member and Florida state legislator Gayle Harrell, said she has concerns. Her constituents have been complaining that graduates of the program have not had enough hands-on training, she said.

Funded by the American Reinvestment & Recovery Act of 2009, the consortia of 82 community colleges was designed to offer six-month training courses for as many as 10,500 students each year.

Patricia Dombrowski is director of the Life Science Informatics Center at Bellevue College in Bellevue, Washington. Her school heads Region A of the program, covering the 10 northwestern states.

Dombrowski has good things to report about the program’s success so far. Her region has surpassed all of its goals in 2011.

If there is a lack of hands-on training, she said, it’s not for lack of trying. Vendors have been unwilling to grant students access to their electronic health record products, for fear of proprietary breech.

Dombrowski feels confident, however, that healthcare IT vendors will come around. “It’s an indication of how young this sector is. The idea of what's proprietary is still so incredibly high,” she said.

To solve the problem for now, Dombrowsi said her region has been working to attract vendors to set up a vendor lending library. In addition, the ONC has provided access to the Veterans Administration’s VISTA system.

Dombrowski said a lot of people have had the misconception that the program was meant to teach health IT to people with no skills, but it is designed for people with at least one robust skill set. Many of those taking the community college training in her region are buffering their outlook of keeping a job in a part of the country where unemployment is higher than the national average.

“We have a huge amount of dislocated IT workers,” she said. “It's really heartening to know the average student is over 40 years old.”

The program is funded through next March. Dombrowski said she plans on requesting an extension for another year.

Charles (Chuck) Friedman, ONC’s former chief scientific officer, was responsible for developing the community college Consortia program. “There is a very broad spectrum of what is needed,” Friedman told Healthcare IT News. “ARRA called for six-month training programs. What you can do in six months is what you can do in six months,” he said. “It may be a little misunderstood what the program is capable of. We were all concerned about what could be done with six months.”

That doesn’t mean there won’t be education available that can offer more than the community college consortia. Last September, Friedman left ONC for what he considered an unprecedented opportunity, to help launch a Master of Health Informatics program at the University of Michigan, to be offered jointly by the School of Information and the School of Public Health. The new program will begin next fall.
Friedman feels the program is indicative of the changing times. “It’s safe to say there is nothing like this program in the country,” he said.

“We are really trying to skate to where the puck is going to be,” said Friedman. “This field desperately needs a whole cadre of leaders who are trained as leaders.”

Meghan Genovese, senior associate director of the new degree program at the university’s School of Information and the School of Public Health said the university saw the growing need for leaders and innovators in health informatics, and it was somewhat launched because of student initiative. “We felt the timing was right, with a strong enough faculty and growing student interest,” she said.