August 01, 2013 | Anthony Brino

What health information technology professionals “really need is training in informatics,” said William Hersh, MD, chair of Oregon Health & Science University’s Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology.

At hospitals and health systems across the country, EMR implementations, accountable care contacts and meaningful use are all driving a need for workers who can bridge the clinical and informatics gap — making clinicians’ lives easier, satisfying hospital administrators’ deadlines for regulatory compliance and helping the enterprise use its population health data better.

The needed skills revolve around data management and science, Hersh said, including “the ability to collect and manage clinical and other data and to put it to use in improving individual health, healthcare, public health, and research.”

Providers in somes areas are scrambling to find workers with those skills — to such an extent that 30 percent of respondents in a recent HIMSS Analytics survey had placed an IT project on hold for lack of staffing.

Many of the approximately 170 providers polled by HIMSS Analytics said they particularly needed workers for clinical application support and help desk operations. Many are turning to outsourcing for some functions, including design and implementation, while others may also be waiting for analytics — something more want to focus on, and a skill much-needed in hospital IT professionals, Hersh said.

[See also: AHIMA’s 4 career tips for population health information management.]

Health informatics graduate programs have grown to meet the needs for clinical information systems workers at hospitals — as data analysis has become commonplace across industries, but also started growing to more complex applications as its own field, Big Data.

The University of California-Berkeley recently launched the country’s first fully-online master’s degree in information and data science, and the National Institutes of Health has made efforts to increase data skills in the workforce, while also nurturing it as a field unto itself.

Not that many clinical informaticists and health information specialists have time right now to pursue a master’s degree or research.

Over the past few years, hospitals have gone on what PriceWaterhouseCoopers called a “hiring spree” in 2012, for department expansions, EHR roll outs, and ongoing consulting for meaningful use, all likely contributing to the short supply HIMSS Analytics detected.

Clinical informatics is now approved as a medical sub-specialty by the American Board of Medical Specialties, and it’s not just providers investing in informatics staff. A survey by PWC found that 70 percent of health insurers and about 40 percent of pharmaceutical and life sciences companies had plans to increase technical informatics staff in the next two years.

A large number of hospitals and providers, 40 percent, also told PWC that a lack of data-skilled staff was a barrier to the development of a comprehensive clinical informatics program.

And half of hospitals and physicians said that “misalignment of clinical and technology teams is an organizational barrier,” PWC found. That, the consulting firm said, is “something they will need to address to incorporate sophisticated analytics into clinicians’ everyday work.”

Indeed, clinicians with an interest in population health analytics back in the 1990s had trouble accessing the very type of data that clinical informaticists are now being brought into work with — and for some providers, clinicians working with data specialists may be a fine solution.

Throughout the healthcare system, though, there is still a need for nurses, aides, of course doctors and other clinicians to have basic information technology skill sets and be able to use and search through several EMR systems to help coordinate care.

The federal government’s health IT workforce development program at community colleges has had mixed successes — with some hospitals saying there wasn’t enough hands-on training, for instance, amid success stories,particularly among IT workers making forays into healthcare.

Government Health IT Editor Tom Sullivan contributed reporting to this article.


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