Experienced Healthcare IT Workers in Short Supply

By Debra Wood, RN, contributor

April 18, 2013 - As hospitals and other providers step up their health information technology (IT) efforts to meaningfully use electronic health records (EHR) and receive government incentives, they are increasing finding it difficult to recruit and retain experienced healthcare IT professionals, according to a new survey from Towers Watson.

“There is a pent-up demand for good IT people to install these systems, and there is not a big enough supply,” said Heidi Toppel, a consulting director in Towers Watson’s hospital industry group in New York. “Additionally, consulting companies who are helping hospitals and healthcare systems install the EHR systems are offering big bucks to come work for them.”

Tower Watson’s Closing the IT Talent Gap in Health Care survey found 67 percent of the more than 102 healthcare providers participating expressed problems attracting experienced IT employees, and 38 percent reported retention issues. Seventy-three percent indicated having trouble attracting Epic-certified professionals.

Jordan Battani called healthcare IT professional shortage acute.
Jordan Battani called the healthcare IT professional shortage acute.

Jordan Battani, managing director of CSC’s Global Institute for Emerging Healthcare Practices, headquartered in Falls Church, Va., said she was not surprised by the study.

“It’s predictable, because we’ve had this incredible ramp-up with all of the incentives with meaningful use,” Battani said. “Every healthcare organization in the country is trying to meet those mandates and receive those incentives.”

Additionally, Battani said, it’s not easy to become certified by a vendor. Once experienced and credentialed, healthcare IT professionals may become independent contractors. Healthcare providers need IT professionals to not only install the systems, Toppel said, but also to keep them operating and to help clinicians pull out and analyze the data to identify trouble spots, effect change and improve care.

“You cannot do these projects without an [IT professional], and it takes a long time to grow one,” Battani said. “We’re in a period where the problem is incredibly acute.”

Battani explained that the meaningful use incentives have forced organizations to crunch their IT activities into a short time frame.

Dangling the wrong carrots?

Provider-held misperceptions about IT professionals’ priorities may create more obstacles in their ability to recruit and retain healthcare IT employees. Towers Watson has found healthcare workers rated job security, competitive base pay, healthcare benefits, convenient work location and career advancement opportunities as the primary reasons for accepting an offer of employment with a healthcare provider.

But with the exception of job security, healthcare employers did not rank any of these same elements when considering drivers of attraction for IT and Epic-certified employees. They identified challenging work as the most important factor in attracting an IT employee to an organization, followed by the employer’s reputation as a great place to work. Employers ranked base salary eighth on the overall list of draws for employees.

“The biggest issue is the money, and healthcare providers need to stay on top of the market in their local area,” Toppel said. “Many organizations are taking their IT positions in the standard salary structure, because it’s such a volatile market right now.”

Fifty-five percent of respondents to the Tower Watson survey indicated they were taking at least three measures to address recruitment and retention issues, including raising base pay, offering retention bonuses and providing additional training.

Once IT employees are in the organization, they see the challenges it is facing and different factors will motivate them to stay or look for other employment, Toppel said. Base salary and opportunities for advancement rank high among IT employees and employers, but employees report more concern than employers recognize with convenience of the work location and confidence in senior leadership.

Work environment, advancement opportunities and benefits are important to retain healthcare IT professionals, Toppel added.

“The industry is not making good use of variable compensation,” Toppel said. “It could be a milestone or retention bonus that people could look forward to receiving over and above their salary.”

Battani said healthcare organizations also may turn to vendors for maintenance and upgrades, which may cost less than hiring the expertise.

Toppel expects that IT professionals will remain in great demand and suggests hospitals develop relationships with universities to develop an IT employee pipeline.

“IT will become a critical component of healthcare, not just for record keeping but in disease prediction and cures,” Toppel said. “IT employees in healthcare will be just as valuable as nurses and other professionals.”

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