Substantial need for a trained workforce in HIT

By William Hersh
04:18 PM

A recent story by Patty Enrado discussed the role that community colleges might play in meeting these workforce needs. The story relied mainly on the opinion of one senior vice president of a medical insurance company and a director of a community college association. Had this story interviewed a wider array of individuals who work in health IT, different conclusions may have been reached.

Dr. Allan Korn provided his opinion that community college programs can be developed to train the cadre of specialists who will lead the implementation of EHRs in physician practices. But the reality is that most of the evidence and experience points to the value of a workforce with broader and deeper skills than can be attained from a two-year associate’s degree. The Healthcare Informatics Compensation Survey (Vendome Group, 2009), for example, shows that a majority of current health IT professionals have graduate degrees, with most of the remainder having bachelor’s degrees.

The combination of expertise in healthcare, IT, change management and people skills is a tall order for any educational program, let alone a two-year community college degree. Dr. Korn may not be aware that there are already programs that teach this array of knowledge and skills, which are graduate programs in biomedical and health informatics (also called clinical informatics). These programs typically offer graduate certificates (one year) and master’s degrees (two years). They usually build on prior clinical and/or IT education and training students bring into these programs.

The field of informatics embodies the synergy of knowledge and experience in healthcare, IT, and other disciplines. Growing experience with IT in healthcare organizations reiterates the need for individuals trained with this array of skills and competencies. The informatics field is named specifically in section 3016 in the ARRA, which is the section devoted to health IT workforce development. Section 3016 calls for training and re-training of individuals for this workforce. A number of academic programs, such as ours at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), have been providing this sort of education for a long time (in our case, over a decade, with more than 250 alumni) and are revising their curricula to meet the needs of the new workforce. At OHSU, for example, we are re-configuring our graduate certificate program to deliver the eight-course program in six months of full-time study.

Most community colleges, on the other hand, do not currently have the faculty or the expertise to teach curricula in clinical informatics. In the meantime, there are plenty of experienced faculty members already in place at many graduate-level informatics programs (although we will certainly need more as the need for the workforce grows).

I do realize that community colleges are taking on an increasingly critical role in re-training of the workforce at large. I agree with President Obama that community colleges can provide important education in our rapidly evolving knowledge economy. Furthermore, there is no doubt that there will be a role for some community college-trained individuals in the physician practice and other health IT environments, such as those with technical skills to run and maintain servers and applications, staff help desks, and perform other similar functions.

But such individuals would be unlikely to become the specialists who will work with physicians and their practices in matching workflow to the technology, obtaining and acting on quality measurement reports, standardizing data for health information exchanges, and other higher-level tasks that will drive the use of health IT to improve healthcare. It would be inefficient, if not misguided, to ignore the existence of graduate programs in clinical informatics, which reside mostly in health science universities. It is these programs that will train the workforce that will be well poised to lead the charge in implementing EHRs to achieve the goals set forth by President Obama and National Coordinator Dr. David Blumenthal.

Click here to read the Healthcare IT News article by Patty Enrado:

William Hersh, MD, is a national leader in health IT and biomedical informatics education. He directs the Biomedical Informatics Graduate Program at Oregon Health & Science University, where he was one of the first to innovate the use of distance learning in the informatics field. Email:


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