From The Editor | August 27, 2010

HIT Staff Shortages: A Potential Barrier To Meaningful Use

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By Ken Congdon, editor in chief, Health IT Outcomes

Much has been documented recently about the shortage of physicians and other caregivers in the United States and how this may hinder the country's ability to accommodate the increased patient care demands brought on by healthcare reform (see Prepare For The New Patient Influx and Is Telehealth The Answer To The Pending Patient Surge?). However, another (less publicized) shortcoming has the potential to thwart the advancement of the healthcare industry from a technical perspective ? the lack of HIT (health information technology) employees.

According to the Office of the National Coordinator of Health IT, healthcare providers will need an additional 50,000 IT workers to satisfy EHR meaningful use criteria. That represents a 50% increase in the size of the current estimated HIT workforce of 108,000. A recent survey by CHIME (The College Of Healthcare Information Management Executives) shows that the provider community is well aware of these HIT labor deficiencies and is concerned about how these staff limitations will inhibit their ability to demonstrate meaningful use by ARRA incentive deadlines. According to the survey, 49.1% of the respondents listed staff levels and capabilities as one of their top three concerns.

While the biggest current demand for HIT staff is from hospitals and physician practices planning to implement EHR and HIE systems, it is not the only area that needs the support of trained HIT professionals. Hospitals and practices must also respond to tightened HIPAA 5010 data security standards and adopt new ICD-10 coding and transaction protocols. Both of these mandates are also deadline sensitive and require HIT expertise and involvement.

Government HIT Aid Is Available, But You Can't Afford To Wait
The federal government has not turned a blind eye to these HIT staffing demands. On the contrary, it has established the ARRA Health IT Workforce Development Program in an effort to produce technicians and professionals in sufficient numbers and in time to meet meaningful use incentive criteria before 2020. For example, the goal of the Community College Consortia Program portion of the program is to train an additional 10,500 EHR implementation technicians per year by 2012.

The biggest downside to these programs is the delay. For example, the first graduates from the Community College Consortia Program are not expected until March 2011, and many hospitals and practices will need to begin their EHR implementations now in order to qualify for the first installment of meaningful use incentive payments (healthcare institutions must apply for the first wave of government funds in 2011).

Rather than waiting for the first class of HIT graduates to enter the market, healthcare organizations serious about EHR adoption will likely need to leverage alternative strategies to get the job done in a timely manner. A recent report from CSC titled U.S. Healthcare Workforce Shortages: HIT Staff recommends a few alternate tactics that can help healthcare facilities meet their IT staffing needs. These suggestions include training and developing technicians from their existing staff; filling in workforce gaps with skill sets from within the organization; exploring alternative implementation strategies, such as remote hosting; and leveraging the support of consultants to assist the HIT staff and physicians.

Ken Congdon is Editor In Chief of Health IT Outcomes. He can be reached at