It has been more than 6 years since ARRA was signed into law, launching the most aggressive transformation of the modern healthcare system since the introduction of Medicare/Medicaid.  The HITECH legislation within ARRA set aside roughly $26B in funding for Health Information Technology with the vast majority of this investment concentrated on incentives for the distribution and meaningful use of electronic health records (EHRs).  With the goal of improving the delivery of patient care and reducing related expenses across the United States health care system, HITECH introduced the first significant government investment in information technology as a critical avenue towards achieving this goal.  So, as we pause to take a look at the progress over the past 4 years, we can naturally look ahead at the anticipated impact on healthcare IT resource needs across the industry and in the coming years.

As expected, the industry has seen a tremendous surge in the number of organizations that have rolled out EHR focused IT projects since 2009.  Whether solely attributed to HITECH, or more likely HITECH funding providing the much needed push for organizations and providers to take on large healthcare IT projects, the healthcare industry is still at the front end of a long journey towards a fully connected healthcare system.  With EHRs serving as the heart and Health Information Exchanges (HIEs) the backbone, initiatives like Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), Patient Centered Medical Home (PCMH) and ICD10 now have the critical infrastructure needed to begin delivering the next generation of value to the evolving healthcare landscape.  Without question, the transformation of the healthcare system in the United States will require ongoing investments in technology and resources at an unprecedented level for many years.  According to an August report from Technology Business Research, it is estimated that the healthcare industry will spend upwards of $35B on health IT and related services in 2014 alone.  In retrospect, HITECH appears to have helped accelerate the clinical and connectivity initiatives that had already dominated the IT investments being made across healthcare following Y2K.

With the clinical and connectivity transformation in full swing, and revenue cycle related initiatives expected to take off, there is a high demand for resources from all areas of healthcare, as well as professionals from other industries, looking to make a career change.  Organizations are struggling to find resources with the appropriate experience to join their permanent staff or qualified consultants to augment their projects.  Without question, healthcare IT professionals are more sought after today than at any other time in industry history.  And with no end to this demand in the near future, healthcare IT professionals find themselves in the enviable position that they have more control over their own career path and compensation than ever before.  The biggest challenges may in fact be what area of concentration a person should direct their experience and future education, and what career opportunities to accept.  If you’re a healthcare IT professional, this is wonderful position to be in.

The obvious need right now is for resources with EHR experience, particularly those with vendor certification of training on software modules.  What does certification mean?  Software certification is typically a designation earned by a professional upon completing a formal program designed to train, test and ultimately determine a minimum level of competency specific to the understanding and use of a particular vendor’s software.  Certification programs are most commonly offered by software vendors, but are also being offered by third party organizations that are attempting to meet the industry demand for formally trained resources.  Understand, certification is not always required.  Across the industry, a debate rages on comparing the value and merit of the various certification programs.  However, because certification is unilaterally recognized as positive and valuable, some organizations are introducing re-imbursement programs that require resources to repay the cost, sometimes at an arbitrary amount, for any certification training.  For this reason, resources should carefully consider their career goals and path when taking advantage of any opportunity that allows them to become certified on a vendor’s software.  Regardless, these programs only further emphasize the value of certifications and the people who have them.  So, if the conditions for receiving a vendor’s certification are acceptable, a resource will undoubtedly increase his or her value to a current or future employer and certainly have an advantage over the competition for career advancement.

However, certification is not always a required.  In fact, the shortage of available certified resources is forcing organizations to reconsider their willingness to hire or retain resources without certification when such credentials might typically be appropriate and desired.  In addition, the higher compensation rates associated with permanent or contracted certified resources are causing many organizations to reconsider how they employ or contract talent for their teams and projects.  So the good news is that it appears the historically proven approach of employing or contracting people with years of experience and workflow knowledge is still an industry standard and should be for years to come.   Anyone falling into this category is extremely marketable and should evaluate their existing credentials against the current and emerging trends to determine the best short and long term career path.  Of course, clinical resources will remain in high demand as organizations move ahead with clinical system implementations.   In addition, there are several emerging trends that are rapidly flooding the industry with new opportunities for healthcare IT professionals, with or without clinical experience.  These include the development of ACOs, PCMH, ICD10 readiness, revenue cycle optimization and data analytics.  Each of these initiatives are forcing organizations to explore how they will meet the resource needs for their own IT teams and/or retain the talent from external sources.  Therefore, we can expect to see the continuation of a resource shortage across healthcare IT even as the surge in clinical projects plateaus and begins to slide backward.  Again, good news for those already in healthcare IT.

For those people not yet part of the healthcare IT industry, there is still opportunity to make the move and enjoy a remarkably fun and rewarding career.  One of the more effective paths for gaining entry into healthcare IT is through the various vendors that provide technology solutions to the industry.  The vendor community has a long track record of hiring talented people from outside of healthcare, often relying more on behavioral analysis tools, basic candidate aptitude and a thorough interview process, vendors more frequently hire talent with potential.  Vendors typically operate with larger margins than healthcare organizations and therefore can assume slightly more risk when hiring employees and developing them into contributing roles.  Determining which vendor offers the best entrée into healthcare IT is probably as easy as identifying those vendors at the forefront of the current and emerging trends.  In addition to pursing the vendor route, some recruiting and consulting firms are offering professionals outside of healthcare opportunities to secure healthcare IT positions through unique hiring events, like Intellect Resources’ Big Break®.  Big Break® is designed to provide healthcare organizations with the large number of resources they need to assist with software training and system activation support.   While these engagements are entry level, and typically contract based, they offer an excellent opportunity to get hands on experience with industry software while working under the guidance of an experienced healthcare IT professional.  Upon completion of the project, these resources are now in a position to compete for consideration to join other training and/or system activation projects elsewhere in the industry.  In some cases, they are occasionally extended an opportunity to join the very organization that required their services in the first place.

We know the transformation of the healthcare system in the United States has helped develop tens of thousands of new healthcare IT positions since 2009.  Looking ahead, we can safely predict the demand and introduction of thousands of additional new career opportunities in healthcare IT.  Whether you are a currently employed as a healthcare IT professional, or someone looking to get a fresh start in a new career, healthcare IT is still very much at the front end of a long journey that will require far more talent and resources than are currently available in the industry today.  Carpe diem.

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