Unprecedented access to data and growing demand for democratized healthcare in the United States make health information technology an increasingly important — and popular — field.
Investments are pouring into health IT, which means new jobs for skilled pros are becoming more and more widely available every day. For example, Ohio's largest health system, Mercy Health, announced in February that it had an immediate need to hire more than 100 experienced health IT professionals.
Demand for Health IT Professionals
Last fall, Georgetown University participated in a series of nationwide events to mark National Health IT Week by inviting then-U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park to participate in a panel discussion. Park, who helped build HealthCare.gov, told Georgetown students to keep pursuing health IT degrees, as the country will only need more in the coming years."The hottest occupations in America are going to be analyzing data and working with data to figure out how to improve [healthcare] outcomes values," he said. "We're already experiencing a significant shortage."
A key to improving the aforementioned healthcare outcomes will be the continued development of electronic health records, or EHRs, which we noted in a previous post, are influencing the cost of healthcare. This isn't simply because paperless recordkeeping is more convenient for patients; physicians and clinics now have financial incentives to digitize their health records. But EHRs will need years of development, before they can provide the seamless level of intelligence they have the potential to deliver.
As athenahealth senior developer Nathan Donnellan writes, the healthcare industry is quick to adopt some technologies and very slow to adopt others."Before joining athenahealth, I just assumed that technology for electronic health records … was somewhat better — especially because launching these products can cost hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars," he says. "I was shocked to find this was rarely the case. While a majority of doctors have transitioned away from paper records (although not without a fight), some players in the EHR space are still very constrained, Internet-wary dinosaurs."
Donnellan's "without a fight" comment is important. Becker's Healthcare touched on this same issue recently. A post on its Health IT & CIO Review blog points out that EHRs can introduce an unfamiliar workflow to many physicians, who not only face a learning curve when using such digital records, but are also susceptible to information fatigue from the alerts coming their way.
Such challenges underscore a demand for health IT professionals who have the knowledge, skills and ambition to help the EHR system evolve.
Big Data is poised to help reshape the healthcare industry around patient-focused, actionable insights. We are not there yet, but there are hundreds of organizations pushing that frontier forward. Jennifer Bresnick at HealthITAnalytics reports that the healthcare analytics market will triple in size by 2020, creating "an $18.7 billion juggernaut."
As with EHRs, that path is fraught with challenges. Mark Hagland at Healthcare Informatics has put together a helpful summary of those challenges, which include quality assurance of the actual data, understanding what to do with unstructured data, and updating older databases originally built for research purposes.
"Right now, all industry experts and healthcare leaders agree, there remains some degree of fuzziness regarding the path ahead on data analytics," Hagland writes. "That is so not only because of the wide variety of goals, objectives, challenges, and opportunities involved, but also because of the fact that the leaders of even the most advanced patient care organizations readily admit that their organizations are just beginning the analytics-facilitated transformation of care delivery and operations in earnest."
Knowledge at the Executive Level
Health IT skills will extend far beyond the specialist level, too, the Financial Times' Sarah Murray writes. While much of the innovation and development will take place on those front lines, the big-picture decisions that executives will make must be informed by an understanding of the technology.
"At a senior level, health executives will need to hone digital skills," Murray writes. "While they may not need to be data or software specialists, organizations' strategies are being increasingly shaped by the need to use technology to cut costs and increase efficiency."
This means skilled employees with strong health IT backgrounds will be needed to not only share their knowledge but also potentially assume leadership roles.
What Opportunities Exist
To meet these industry-wide challenges, clinics, hospitals, care providers and other healthcare organizations will require certain skillsets from employees. Broadly, three categories of health IT specialists are clear at this point:
- People who can secure data
- People who can implement strategies for those using data
- People who can support the applications that can carry out those strategies
High-profile data breaches within healthcare and from other industries demonstrate the need to keep patients' information safe from malicious actors. But as Rob Wright at TechTarget's SearchCloudSecurity points out, 9 out of 10 clinics and organizations have cloud storage systems that are exposed to data breaches. That means sensitive health and identity information for individual patients could be stolen and exposed.
Further, organizations that are lax with device access — letting an employee access an EHR with his or her personal mobile device, for example — create what technology writer Douglas Bonderud at IBM's Security Intelligence blog calls "a massive attack surface."
Bonderud reports that the National Institute of Standards and Technology has created a draft guide specifically to help organizations understand and implement policies for access control.
These are just two examples of where data security professionals could create stronger systems and protocols to keep patients' private data private. As the field of health IT grows, such expertise will only increase in demand.
Tim Cannon, Vice President of Product Management and Marketing at HealthITJobs.com, writes at Tech.co that there are still too few health IT professionals to meet industry demands — and those demands are moving beyond the realm of pure IT. For a field growing as quickly as health IT, organizations need professionals who can act on the intelligence derived from all the data they collect.
"Employers are looking for data strategists who can combine business decision-making skills and IT knowledge, data scientists who can use their deep understanding of analytics combined with an IT background to develop algorithms, and analytic consultants who can combine their knowledge of business and analytics," Cannon says.
And as more and more organizations become data-driven, the people shaping those strategies are poised to take on important roles. Mike Millard at Government Health IT points to Eugene Kolker, who was named Chief Data Officer at Seattle Children's Hospital in 2007, as being at the forefront of that trend."Our deal is trying to leverage data as a strategic institutional asset," Kolker tells Millard. "It's not about technology. It's not IT. It's about how to transform data into information, how to transform information into better-informed decisions."
Clinical Application Support
On the very front lines will be the people who manage the software that store and track medical data. These employees will need to demonstrate a balance between having strong technical skills and also some clinical expertise.
People with these skills are among the most in-demand across all of the health IT field. Bernie Monegain, Editor-at-Large for Healthcare IT News, reported on an HIMSS Analytics survey in 2014 that found the majority of healthcare providers planned to hire clinical application support staff over the next year.
Two Organizations Leveraging Their Health IT Talent
Several clinics, hospitals and startups around the country are pushing the boundaries of healthcare forward with data-driven insights. Here are two examples:
Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland
The San Jose Mercury-News reported last fall that this Bay Area hospital had been using Big Data to discover what neighborhoods its ER's most frequent patients came from and what their medical conditions were in order to connect them with more coordinated healthcare services to bring down the cost of treating people exclusively through the ER.
"Up to half the patients that come to the emergency room have problems that could be seen quickly and treated quickly in a clinic," the hospital's chief medical executive, Dr. Steve O'Brien, told the paper. "The overall length of stay for all patients in the emergency room has gone down dramatically."
The Healthcare Colloquium in Ohio
Columbus-based research nonprofit Battelle has a data-driven subsidiary company, The Healthcare Colloquium, that is working to improve safety and quality of care across the state by collecting data on all inpatient visits and outpatient encounters to compare what works from community to community.
"The industry once expected a certain number of patients would get infections while in the hospital, or show up back at the emergency room within a few weeks of discharge," Columbus Business First reported following a conversation with Ohio Hospital Association CEO Mike Abrams. "By acting on research, they've all but eliminated ventilator infections and cut in half infections from catheters in large chest veins."
It is possible to use real data in order to enact visible changes like those demonstrates above in a reasonable amount of time. All we need to do - is to continue to do it.
Paul Bica, aotaro, Christopher Bowns
Tags: API, Dev