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Time is running out for healthcare providers to adopt electronic health records. Switching from paper-based models to digital files helps hospitals improve care coordination, but organizations that fail to use EHRs by 2015 will be subject to financial penalties under Medicare. Despite the opportunities, some hospitals are struggling to find the talent they need to manage electronic patient information.

Demand is booming for health information technicians. The U.S. will need an estimated 41,000 more HIT professionals by 2022, according to research from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a 22 percent increase, much higher than the projected 11 percent growth in overall employment.

“The challenge for health care 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 health care becomes more connected, coordinated and accountable," Daniel Garrett, principal and Health Information Technology practice leader at PwC, said in a statement.

Health IT goes beyond “plug and chug”  

Switching to EHRs involves more than simple data entry. Under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, healthcare organizations must prove meaningful use, showing that they’re actually using these electronic files to improve care. Employees who work with patient information must hone a variety of skills to make the data actionable. They typically maintain information for clinical databases and registries, track patient outcomes, assign clinical codes for reimbursement and data analysis, and protect patient health information, to name a few items in the job description.

Health information management professionals work for a variety of employers, such as hospitals, health care systems, private practices, pharmacies and insurance companies.

Novel approaches to finding talent

The shortage of health IT workers is especially profound in rural environments, where budgets are tight and organizations lack the big-city draw that attracts young talent. To address the shortage, some hospitals are getting creative. Roseau LifeCare Medical Center, a 25-bed critical-access hospital in Roseau, Minn., a town of 2,600 near the Canadian border, trained existing staff in IT skills, according to Modern Healthcare. Small providers also are partnering with larger hospitals to use their EHRs, or sharing IT staff with other rural hospitals. 

In Tennessee, lack of education and training is cited as a key reason that there aren’t enough qualified workers to meet the state’s demand. Belmont University and TN HIMSS, a nonprofit healthcare IT organization, are launching a certificate program in healthcare information technology.

“We’re bringing together corporate partners, a major association in HIMSS, and a university,” Tod Fetherling, vice president of workforce development for nonprofit TN HIMSS and chairman of healthcare analytics company Stratasan, tells The Tennessean. “I think it’s a very innovative approach to solving some of the workforce problem.”

While healthcare organizations ramp up their health information management efforts in order meet impending EHR deadlines, their demand hardly is fleeting. Once these systems are functioning to their fullest potential, organizations will need dedicated staff who can manage and interpret meaningful patient data to improve outcomes. 

Photo: Can Stock