Do HIT workers even need a college degree?

WASHINGTON – Health IT departments have a great need for skilled employees.

With meaningful use, predictive analytics, ICD-10, quality goals and more, most managers say they could use more staff. But that staff is hard to find.

In an impromptu poll at the Government Health IT Conference and Exhibition sponsored June 17 in Washington, DC by the Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), the vast majority attendees of the opening keynote, many of whom work in federal health IT departments, said they are looking, unsuccessfully, to increase their staff.

All is not lost, said Seth Harris, an attorney at Dentons in Washington, DC. Part of the problem is in the somewhat non-productive attitude of employers in thinking that every candidate needs to have a college education.

“The fundamental concept, here, is competency,” Harris said. And for this, Harris recommends prospective employers use a competency model. It helps an employer to “deconstruct” the job and determine exactly what kinds of skills and inherent personality traits are needed.

Some competencies can be revealed through testing, such as integrity and professionalism, he said. These skills cannot be acquired through an education or training, necessarily. Other skills, including academic, workplace, industry sector and technical competencies can be determined from work history, and may not necessarily have been acquired from a college degree, Harris added.

“Too many employers are focused on resumes,” Harris said. “They look at what college a candidate attended, instead of asking, ‘does this person have the personal characteristics and skills for this job?’”

“Too many employers have fallen in love with the bachelor’s degree,” he said. “This might be good public policy approach. But from an individual employer’s point of view, assuming this will lead to success might not be true.”

Harris recommends looking for good candidates among those with associate’s degrees and past experience.

As director of the Life Science Informatics Center at Bellevue College, Patricia Dombrowski has been extensively involved in a program funded by the stimulus package in 2009 to train health IT workers at the community college level. The Department of Health and Human Services poured $80 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding to help develop and strengthen the health IT workforce, and it has been working, according to Dombrowski.

Dombrowski said most health IT managers look for new staff in four ways, even if those aren’t the best ways: they try to hire seasoned health IT professionals; they try to promote internally; they try to hire seasoned IT professionals from other sectors; or they hire from those who have recently graduated.

The problem with these methods is they aren’t fruitful, she said. Seasoned health IT professionals aren’t easy to come by, especially if you’re trying to lure them into federal agencies. Promoting internally leaves a gap where that person used to be. Hiring outside of the health IT industry is not always desirable because “healthcare likes its own,” and hiring from the recent grad pool is often “too much trouble.”

Both Harris and Dombrowski urged employers to seek their new employees from among programs that include efforts to train and hire veterans such as the HIMSS veterans career services program called “a hero’s welcome to health IT.”

As HIMSS senior director of state government affairs Tom Keefe said during the session: “If you hire a vet, you’ll never regret it.”

Dombrowski added that growing one’s own health IT employees is a good way to go. “Invest in them early and build loyalty,” she said.

In addition, non-traditional apprenticeship will vastly help to build the health IT work pool, Dombrowski added.

Free health IT curricula is another way to grow health IT staff “You can try to put one together yourself, or access those offered through federal agencies and elsewhere,’ Dombrowski said. “There’s a treasure trove of material out there available.”