Preparing for the future: Education for HIT pros

By Stephen Burrows
12:52 PM

If you ask any hospital CIO, they will likely say that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act have been both a blessing and a curse.

Many will say one of their biggest challenges in attaining the goals of the federal programs is having trained and knowledgeable staff available to complete the work.

The need for healthcare information technology (HIT) jobs is expected to grow by 20 percent by 2018, an increase that is much faster than the average for all occupations (Medical Records and Health Information Technicians).

If you look at most any hospital’s IT department, you will typically see professionals who have transitioned into healthcare IT from other areas. Inevitably you will see individuals with healthcare backgrounds and clinical experiences, including physicians, nurses, technologists, therapists, etc. Besides the clinical backgrounds, what’s common among these individuals is that HIT is likely a ‘second career’ for them. Very few have completed formal education in their new field.

As an academic discipline, HIT or informatics is still relatively new and not very commonplace at universities across the country. However, the number of programs nationwide is growing, with new programs being launched to help fill this gap (Universities respond to need for HIT help and New Healthcare Information Systems Graduate Program Announced). The majority of these have been post-graduate programs but baccalaureate level study has begun to appear (St. Johns University, Champlain College).

An additional alternative is the graduate certificate in informatics or healthcare IT. These programs typically consist of twelve credits (four graduate courses) and cover focused topics pertinent to the HIT professional. While the education is not as broad or deep as a typical graduate program, this type of program is appealing to the potential student as the goal can be reached in a much shorter period of time.

An alternative to the traditional baccalaureate or graduate degree routes, and an option for those working in healthcare information technology but who may not have those degrees, is the "Workforce Development Program” created by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONCHIT). The HITECH Act has provided funding for this program.

Recognizing the demand for and shortfall of HIT professionals, grant money has been given to a number of programs to train healthcare personnel to meet the industry’s demands. There are many pieces to this program, which I will explore in future blog posts.

I've spoken to several hospital CIOs who all say they desperately need staff that come to them ready to fill the role as systems analyst. In fact, upon hearing of the launch of a new master’s degree program for HIT, one local CIO told me that she was already ‘trying to figure out how to use the students who graduate from the program’. This enthusiasm speaks volumes, considering the program’s first graduates aren't slated to enter the working world for another three years!

Stephen Burrows, DPM, MBA, is Chair & Program Director of Healthcare Information Systems at Sacred Heart University’s College of Health Professions.