Does Health IT Have a Staffing Crisis?

Aug. 29, 2013
Healthcare organizations are facing a shortage of IT professionals, according a recent survey from HIMSS Analytics. Thirty-one percent of healthcare organization executives said they had to put a project on hold because of staffing shortages, with an additional 19 percent weighing that possibility. Just how can this problem be solved?

An industry-wide predicament was outlined in last month’s inaugural HIMSS Analytics Workforce Survey.

While the survey found that three out of four healthcare provider organizations plan to hire IT professionals in the next year, 31 percent said they had to put a project on hold because of staffing shortages, with an additional 19 percent expressing that they were weighing a similar stoppage. More so, 43 percent of providers and 56 percent of vendors cited a lack of qualified talent pool was their biggest challenge to staffing their environment.

In addition, 76 percent of healthcare providers currently outsource a service rather than hire directly. The HIMSS survey, which included the responses of 224 executives, isn’t the first indication of this crisis. The 2012 CHIME CIO survey, from last September, found that 67 percent of healthcare CIOs were reporting IT staff shortages. Another survey, from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), had 62 percent of healthcare organizations expressing concern in a lack of qualified IT applications.

The surveys from HIMSS, CHIME, and PwC are revealing. The problems that healthcare organizations are facing with IT staffing shortages have gotten more pronounced since the enactment of Meaningful Use of electronic health records under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act.

According to Shane Pilcher, the vice president of Stolenberg Consulting, a Bethel Park, Penn.-based consulting firm, this has been developing for a while. Hospitals used to primarily train people from various departments—clinical and financial—to be health IT programmers, he says. Furthermore, there were high retention rates and very little attrition for those in place, except when people retired. These two factors created a limited pool of resources.

Shane Pilcher

When meaningful use kicked in, it evaporated that pool entirely, Pilcher says. “Providers grabbed up someone who fit their culture and now they are holding onto them, because meaningful use is a marathon. So it went from a shortage to a crisis,” he adds.

In the HIMSS workforce survey, those who said they had to put a project on hold said that meaningful use and the conversion to ICD-10 took precedence over other initiatives such as system installations, EMR integrations, and system hardware upgrades, and enhancements. The respondents say any delay causes inefficiencies to continue and put organizations at risk of software and hardware components breaking down.

Staff burnout is another possible cause of an understaffed, overworked IT staff, the HIMSS report found. Pilcher says that today’s experienced professionals have been staying in a long-term implementation situation, which tends to burn people out quickly. “What we’re seeing is those who might not have wanted to retire, after a few years of high paced/high stress implementation and knowing we still have a few more years left, are changing their minds,” he says.  

If it’s not retirement, then maybe it’s a highly productive member of the team getting lured to a competing organization or an industry vendor. Right now, vendors are scooping up a good chunk of the talent, which is making it even harder for provider organizations. In the CHIME survey, 85 percent of CIO respondents were worried about staff retention.

How to Solve a Problem like Staffing Shortage

Pilcher says healthcare organizations have slim chances of finding an experienced health IT professional. Instead, he suggests that one somewhat obvious step they can take to solve this problem is finding venues, such as a university program, to partner with and provide strong candidates. They should use their senior leadership and develop an internal training program to help those new employees get up to speed and cut down on the learning curve.

Third-party consultants are another idea, and both the HIMSS and CHIME surveys indicate that many healthcare organizations are seriously considering going that route. Another possibility is to cross over clinicians and train them from an IT perspective. However, Pilcher says, the problem with that is other areas, such as nursing, are facing shortages as well.

 “[The best strategy to deal with the shortage] has to be a combined approach. Certainly teaming with an organization in your area will not only help meet the requirements today, but your strategic needs down the road.  Also, engaging consultants that are knowledgeable and can blaze the path for you,” Pilcher says. “They have to invest in hiring and training someone through the process, it’s a lot of upfront investment for the recurring investment coming in a couple of years.”

To this point, Pilcher recommends long-term planning so if something comes up, an organization will know how many people are required. Assigning resources this way can reduce burnout, he says.

“They have to be more proactive than reactive. Using those mentoring relationships, whether it’s external or internal, is a critical piece to making sure your staff can maintain things in the future,” Pilcher says.

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