How to get a job in healthcare IT

healthcare stethoscope
Credit: Alina Goncharova

Electronic records. Digital and wireless medical devices. Healthcare reform. Aging population. All signs point to healthcare as a stable, long-term choice for IT careers.

Looking for an industry with long-term stability for your IT career? There's probably no safer bet than healthcare. Redwood City, Calif.-based recruiting firm Robert Half Technology tracked the top five fastest-growing industries in the United States in nine separate regions in 2012; in seven of the nine regions, healthcare ranked first or second, and it was third in the other two regions. And in four of those regions, the associated industry of medical technology showed up as well.

Likewise, in its 2012 survey (the most recent available), the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives reported that average salaries for senior healthcare IT positions ranged from $128,193 for directors of IS or IT up to $310,326 for CIOs.

And current rates are trending in the $400,000 range for chief medical information officers, executives who combine both medical and informatics degrees, according to medical executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, based in Oak Brook, Ill.

If those quantitative measures aren't enough for you, consider the qualitative evidence. Healthcare, perhaps more than any other industry, is beset by change -- with a lot of mandated by new laws and regulations that can only efficiently be implemented through technology. Add to that the increasing use of electronic medical records (EMRs), digital and wireless medical devices and a bulge in the aging population, and healthcare's viability as a career couldn't be clearer.

Of course, making the move into healthcare IT may not be as simple as picking up a phone to start interviewing. Healthcare IT is as complex as healthcare itself. In many cases, it requires special skills -- and not all of them are technical. And the benefits are a little different from other IT jobs too. "The one thing I truly enjoy about my work is that I make a difference," says Joel Thornhill, a regional IT test manager for Kaiser Permanente. "What we do in IT impacts people's lives. That gives me a good sense of satisfaction."

Ready for some feel-good vibes of your own? Read on to learn what kind of skills you need for healthcare IT, and the best way to break into this vibrant vertical industry.

An industry in deep disruption

If you think IT is rife with acronyms, you ain't seen nothing yet. In addition to having to master clinical lingo, healthcare IT professionals are currently struggling to implement jargon-heavy programs like Meaningful Use, ICD-10 and Accountable Care Organizations. (For explainers, see Healthcare IT's alphabet soup.)

Add in pressures to keep medical costs down and the rollout of new hospital- and home-based medical devices that employ digital and wireless technology and support telemedicine, and you've got an industry in upheaval, facing change from multiple directions.

"Everything in healthcare today is becoming more complex, whether it's managing regulations or the constant chase to stay ahead of the competition," says Thomas Duff, a software engineer for Cambia Health Solutions, a Portland, Ore. firm whose portfolio of companies includes those specializing in healthcare information technology, software development and management of health insurance plans.

On the plus side, healthcare IT has a unique opportunity to act as a superhero in this situation. "In healthcare, there is an increasing dependency on technology that wasn't there before," says Myra Davis, who, as CIO of Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, oversees an IT staff of 330 serving six major healthcare facilities and almost 50 clinics.

"Historically, the industry has always relied on paper records. With the onset of EMR systems, the need for the dissemination of paper is gone, and what's increasing is the need to leverage software." There is also increasing dependency on technology with regard to medical devices as well, Davis adds.

Nico Arcino, senior director for digital health strategy at Kaiser Permanente, concurs. "Healthcare IT is being looked at now as part of the care delivery system, whether what we do relates to the supply chain, or video or EMRs or the device that's connected to the patients at their bedside."

Any way you slice it -- pardon the surgery pun -- all signs point to an increasing dependence on IT, and thus the healthcare IT workforce.

How to break into the market

Naturally, if you have experience in EMR software or medical devices, you're likely already in healthcare IT, and you're in high demand. What if you don't? With remarkable consistency, healthcare veterans said that the best way to make the move into healthcare IT is through the route that it shares with every other IT organization: infrastructure.

"There's been resurgence in the need for traditional infrastructure support roles within healthcare recently," reports John Reed, senior executive director for Robert Half Technology. "As healthcare has added more software [such as EMR], improved its systems to automate software delivery and upgraded networks and hardware, there's a need for people who can get those elements to work and keep [employees] productive."

That's the situation at Texas Children's Hospital. "I need skilled technicians who understand the complexity of integration and the technology to make it work," says Davis. "When I hire at the technical level, I'm looking for seasoned people who've been there and done that. It doesn't matter if it's healthcare or not, as long as they understand the nuts and bolts."

Lac Tran, CIO at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, concurs. "Infrastructure is the foundation for every IT organization, and healthcare relies on that solid foundation. No matter what industry you're in, you still need to understand the core activities: development, web design, servers and desktops."

That need puts healthcare IT in competition with every other industry. "To recruit IT personnel, we [offer to] help educate them about our core business," says Tran. It's a win-win situation for employee and organization alike: Bring your infrastructure experience and get the benefit of learning healthcare IT.

Climbing the healthcare IT ladder

Understanding the business is key to any IT activity, and healthcare is no exception. Once in the IT department, you can make your move from traditional infrastructure to the more specialized, clinical side of the house, which combines basic elements of technology with the unique elements of medical informatics. Responsibilities range from deploying EHRs to monitoring the network impact of everything from bedside medical devices to digital radiology equipment.

Healthcare has other burgeoning technology needs that may allow IT practitioners with other kinds of experience to break in (see Crossing over to healthcare IT for a list of other industries that provide good experience).

One of these needs is security. "The healthcare industry is hypersensitive about protecting the confidentiality of patient information and making sure it doesn't fall into the wrong hands," Reed points out.

Another area is big data. "The healthcare industry also needs people who can dive into the areas of data analysis and analytics," says Reed. "It needs people who manage the huge amounts of information that healthcare gathers on a daily basis, both structured and unstructured, analyze it for trends and deliver that information back to the business side of the house."

Other fundamental IT skills sources cited frequently are program management and project management, the ability to shepherd either development efforts or other deployment projects. These tie into another key area, that of workflow. "The workflow of the care delivery is most important," says Tran. "Someone has to understand an entire process, starting from the time a patient makes an appointment. The IT person needs to understand how the appointment system works to create the records in the EHR and send them to the appropriate office."

John Showalter, chief health information officer at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, has both an MD and a master's in information systems from Penn State. He concurs on the importance of workflow, using surgery as an example. "You have surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists. If you don't know those job roles and how they interact, it's hard to build a system for them to use."

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