Flush with federal funds and under the gun of federal regulatory deadlines, the healthcare industry is leading the market in IT jobs creation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics job placement services.
The bureau indicated that IT jobs in healthcare are expected to grow by 20% annually through 2018, "much faster than average." There are currently 176,090 healthcare IT jobs, according to the agency.
Since November 2009, healthcare IT positions have increased 67%, according to online job search engine SimplyHired.com, which lists 7,200 open healthcare IT positions out of 4.9 million jobs on its website.
Leading the pack from a percentage of increase perspective are CIO and CTO positions, according to Dion Lim, COO of SimplyHired.com. Since 2009, CIO positions in the healthcare field have increased 101% (more than 200 current job listings) and chief technology officer positions have increased 127% (about 100 job listings).
"My experience has been that CIOs from other industries are being hired into healthcare," said Robert Booz, a vice president and distinguished analyst with market research firm Gartner. "People who were in retail banking or manufacturing are being brought into the healthcare world to bring their lessons learned from other industries."
Booz said CIOs and CTOs are given the responsibility of being agents of change, using the lessons learned in other industries to bring the healthcare industry up to speed. Healthcare has been a slow follower in IT adoption, but today is being driven by federal regulations requiring it to roll out electronic health records (EHRs) and to implement best practices in care through standardized medicine.
Among these regulations, the federal government is requiring a changeover from the current ICD-9 medical coding system to ICD-10 by Oct. 1, 2013. The effort has been under way since 2008, yet most hospitals have not begun the changeover, according to the American Hospital Association.
ICD-10 adds about 68,000 new codes that describe medical conditions and treatments, and will affect databases and EHRs, billing systems, reporting packages, and other decision-making and analytical systems. The changeover will require major upgrades or the replacement of current IT systems.
In addition to ICD-10, by 2012, healthcare providers must upgrade from the current version of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) to the HIPAA 5010 standards, which address new rules for claims management systems, including transaction uniformity and the streamlining of reimbursement transactions.
Jobs in healthcare IT administration are also seeing strong growth, according to the SimplyHired search engine. Since 2009, database admin jobs have grown by 94% (400+ jobs); network admin positions have grown by 64% (100+ jobs); sys admin jobs have increased 43% (about 100 jobs), and storage admin positions have grown by 37% (about 100 jobs).
In terms of sheer numbers of positions, developers lead the pack with more than 6,000 job listings, or a 65% increase since 2009, followed by system analysts with more than 2,000 jobs, or a 35% increase.
"Healthcare has been one of the highest performing areas for jobs creation pre recession, recession and post recession," Lim said.
By comparison, Lim said other leading markets for jobs creation have been the automotive industry at 60% and the financial services industry, with 34% growth over the past year.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics states on its website that through 2018, employment of medical records and health information technicians will lead the pack in healthcare IT job growth.
"In addition, with the increasing use of electronic health records, more technicians will be needed to complete the new responsibilities associated with electronic data management," the agency stated.
Specialists are the most highly sought
This year alone, healthcare IT spending is expected to reach $40 billion, according to a study from market research firm RNCOS.
The Affordable Care Act, passed last year, is expected to drive an 8.3% growth in healthcare spending by 2014, according to the health policy journal Health Affairs.
Driving much of the spending increase is the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, enacted as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The HITECH Act requires hospitals and physician practices to roll out and prove the meaningful use, a set of specifications and certification criteria for EHRs, by 2015 or face penalties.
An estimated 50,000 health IT employees are needed for the industry to meet these regulatory deadlines, according to Eric Marx, vice president of Health Care IT for Modis IT Staffing, a job placement agency with locations in 28 states.
The federal government has spent $144 million to set up IT worker training at more than 80 U.S. community colleges and universities to help fill the employment gap.
A significant part of the training will be for staffers at 60 regional extension centers (REC), the public-private partnerships that will eventually assist in the deployment of EMR systems at rural hospitals and physician practices with 10 or fewer doctors.
"The graduates from these programs aren't ready for primetime yet, but will have the needed experience starting in 2013," Marx said.
However, there is a significant disparity between the gross need for health IT employees and the number of qualified professionals able to meet requirements, Marx said. Modis' clients have struggled to find applicants who are not only technically proficient, but also experienced in the clinical health care environment.
"I'd compare the IT job situation in healthcare to the dot-com era or Y2K. There's a tremendous amount of demand for workers, but with a very specialized skill set," Marx said.
Marx said his hospitals and physician practice clients are seeking workers with vendor specific skills and experience in implementing EHR systems. For example, IT workers are needed who know how to deploy and run EHR systems from vendors such as Phillips Healthcare, Cerner, Meditech and EPIC.
Hospitals aren't just looking for people who can implement those EHR systems, they need IT people to run them and adapt them over the long haul.
"These are salaried employees. They are going to be busy for quite some time, like the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggested with its 2018 timeframe," Marx said.
Marx and others emphasized that workers with clinical knowledge, who may have formerly worked in a healthcare position, have a huge leg up over workers with only IT experience. So, healthcare workers who get formal IT training will be highly sought after.
Adding to the overall growth in healthcare IT positions is the fact that by 2020, nearly 28 million previously uninsured Americans are expected to get health insurance coverage as a result of health care reform, the majority of it coming through health care exchanges (HIX), which the government is mandating states deploy by 2014. The influx of newly insured Americans will put a strain on billing systems, databases and EHRs.
IT workers in other fields may also find a sense of fulfillment working in healthcare, where using their skills directly affects the well-being of patients.
"The better we do our job, the more people can get care, and the more people can get better care," Booz said. "There is definitely this sense of accomplishment beyond one's self role that you have when you're working in healthcare."
Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.