Building a Pipeline From Classroom to Health System

April 8, 2014
With the health IT landscape shifting so rapidly, how can educational programs charged with churning out health IT talent keep their curriculum relevant? Washington state has created a forum to allow representatives of employers and health IT training programs to better align educational programs with staffing needs.

With the health IT landscape shifting so rapidly, how can educational programs charged with churning out health IT talent keep their curriculum relevant? At the recent State Healthcare IT Connect Summit in Baltimore, I had a chance to sit down with three health leaders from the state of Washington who have been involved in forming an organization to strengthen the health IT talent pipeline from colleges to the workplace.

Convened and facilitated by the Washington Health Care Authority, the Washington Health Information Industry-Education Council (WHIIEC) is the first forum in the country created so that representatives of employers and health IT training programs could align educational programs with staffing needs.

Its members include representatives of the University of Washington, Eastern Washington University, community colleges (including the workforce development consortium under the HITECH Act), hospitals, medical practices, tribal clinics, professional societies and the Regional Extension Center.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Labor through a grant to Bellevue College, WHIIEC also is reaching out to other states to help them convene educational institutions and industry. The organization is in talks with folks in Pennsylvania, Oregon and North Carolina interested in setting up similar programs. WHIIEC can provide consulting and a step-by-step guide on how to establish such a council.

The first thing WHIIEC did was an extensive survey of providers about their needs. In early 2013 WHIIEC conducted an assessment of employers’ anticipated needs for HIT staffing capacity. “We found two things,” said Steve Lewis, senior health policy analyst for the Washington Health Care Authority. “First, there is still a surprisingly large need for help with initial system implementations, and second, there is an emphasis on business intelligence and analytics.” An analysis of 240 responses 23 percent said they expected they needed additional resources in data analysis and reporting.

But the survey also highlighted some key challenges. A majority of respondents said they would prefer to upgrade the skills of their current staff members or hire outside consultants than hire new employees trained in college programs. They are more interested in people with on-the-job experience than classroom training. In the survey, the highest-ranked challenges were “lack or cost of qualified outside consultants” and “lack or cost of qualified prospective employees,” followed by “lack of practical experience of incumbent employees.” As the survey report notes, if employers believe that they can’t access or can’t afford qualified new employees or consultants, and that their existing employees don’t have the necessary experience, educators have an opportunity to develop innovative means of offering training to those already in the workforce.

Employers will have to tap the resources of the academic community to access the skill sets they need, either to upgrade existing employees or attract new employees or consultants, the report said. And educators must develop flexible models of instruction to accommodate working students, the specialized skill set needs of employers and the variety of backgrounds learners will bring to the educational setting.

Nathan Johnson, state HIT coordinator and director of policy, planning and performance for the Washington Health Care Authority, said it has been very helpful that the people at the council table are high-level individuals in their organization, including the Washington State Hospital Association, the Medical Group Management Association and HIMSS-Washington. All these groups like the fact that the council can be a neutral, honest broker.

“What struck us was the level of engagement,” Davis said. “The employer groups were so glad to have something like this that they expressed an interest in meeting as often as monthly.”

Patricia Dombrowski, director of the Bellevue College Life Science Informatics Center, said the relationship has already paid off. “When we took the plans for our certificate in data analytics to the council, in the first seven minutes they told us what was missing from the curriculum.”

For anyone interested, here are a few links the organization has created to help with the formation of a Health Information Industry-Education Council (HIIEC):

How to Form Your State HIIEC Brochure, available in PDF format for use in creating awareness about what this council can do to promote HIT workforce development in other states and U.S. territories.

HIIEC Formation Primer is a step-by-step quick guide to the basics of a Health Information Industry-Education Council.

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