Feds to spend $144M to train health IT workers

More than 80 schools will prep 50,000 workers for IT jobs

Beginning this fall, more than 80 community colleges and universities in the U.S. will begin training health care IT workers under a government grant program created to help fill an estimated 50,000 jobs needed to assist doctors and hospitals as they roll out electronic medical records (EMR).

The estimated 50,000 trainees are in addition to people already being trained in existing IT programs in U.S. universities, according to Dr. Charles Friedman, chief scientific officer at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. The agency estimates it will spend $144 million in grant money to develop and implement curricula in colleges and universities to train the health care IT workers.

Money for the education and training effort was included in the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act of 2009.

Friedman said the training programs are aimed at people who already have health care or IT backgrounds -- not workers from other fields who have no previous experience or training in either discipline.

"A landscaper might be able to enter one of these programs, but if this is a person with no health care or IT background, it's unlikely that person will be able to achieve what's needed for these jobs in six months," Friedman said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has designed a curriculum to train people for 12 specific roles. The jobs are broken down into two major groups: Those for which health care IT workers can be trained at community colleges in six-month certification programs, and those that require one to three years of training at universities, such as senior clinician leaders, privacy and security specialists and research and development scientist.

Some of the six-month programs include training to be a practice workflow and information management redesign specialist, clinician consultant, and implementation support specialist.

On average, each school has or will get about $1 million to implement the curriculum; many of the schools have banded together in five regional consortia. Students graduating from the HITECH-funded programs will receive certificates in their specialties.

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. Smaller health care operations like those will need help in order to meet the federal government's "meaningful use" criteria and get reimbursements for the EMR rollouts.

The RECs, which are still being developed, will employ anywhere from 10 to 30 workers. Their responsibilities will include helping health care providers with the reimbursement process and assessing whether health care facilities have the infrastructure to implement EMR systems. The health care IT employees will also work with doctors and health care facilities to select an EMR system, oversee its installation, perform a workflow analysis of the effort and certify whether the EMR deployment meets the government's meaningful-use standards.

Michael Kirshner, program director of the Oregon Institute of Technology's health informatics degree program, graduated the first class of health care IT students from the baccalaureate program this spring and expects to start up the school's grant-funded health IT program this fall.

OIT opened a simulation lab in 2007 that simulates an IT environment in the health care field to help students learn how to deploy EMR applications from leading vendors such as General Electric and Allscripts. It also familiarizes them with databases from Oracle Corp. and Microsoft Corp. and teaches them about patient portals and secure messaging platforms from companies such as Kryptiq Corp.

OIT's program offers a bachelor's degree in IT with an option in health informatics. IT covers the EMR implementation process, data mining and data extraction, the creation of interfaces using HL7 standards, data analytics, queries and report creation.

"We expose students to a variety of user roles to train them how to use these," Kirshner said. "But equally relevant is how other users on a health care team would be interacting with [health IT] systems. We're trying to create broad exposure and a hands-on learning experience so they can be an integral part of the team instead of just a single defined set of tasks."

Kirshner said the school surveyed employers in the Portland area and came up with a list of about 300 health care IT jobs among the top 15 employers. "We've turned out less than 20 [health care IT] graduates, so clearly the demand is much higher," he said.

According to Kirshner, 85% of the available jobs in the area require a bachelor's degree and have starting salaries that range from $45,000 to $75,000.

One reason the government focused its grant program on state schools is because they tend to be far less expensive than private institutions. That gives IT and health care workers an affordable way to make lateral career moves. For example, OIT's full baccalaureate program costs only $25,000.

Beyond the private-sector jobs available for health care IT workers, the federal government has set aside money for REC operations to help rural hospitals and small physician practices set up EMR systems and qualify for some of the billions of dollars in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement funds available to those that successfully use EMRs.

Jonathan Fuchs, chief operating officer of the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care (FMC) in Fort Smith, Ark. opened a regional extension center in February to serve local physician practices.

That REC is working closely with local two- and four-year colleges and has worked out a deal to provide potential health care IT students with a discount for HITECH-funded courses at local schools. Typically, the certification programs cost $500 to $1,000, said Fuchs, who added that he hopes to provide internships for health care IT students.

Positions at the REC include a director, a program manager, a network data manager, a marketing manager, a program assistant, four to six EMR implementation specialists, three to four quality improvement employees and five outreach workers.

"Depending on the level of the surge, we will either outsource some of the work or add additional staff," Fuchs said. "Some RECs have totally outsourced their implementation activities to consultants and other RECs. There are all different models across the country."

The FMC REC is supposed to help 1,280 physicians roll out EMR systems over the next five years. The center has already signed up 550 doctors.

Physicians who roll out EMR systems under the Medicare program and meet government certification requirements can get up to $44,000 in reimbursement money. Those who choose to implement the technology under the Medicaid program, which requires that at least 30% of their practice be enrolled in the program for 90 consecutive days during a calendar year, can receive up to $64,000 to defray IT costs.

While thousands of graduates of HITECH grant-funded courses will staff REC offices throughout the county, the overwhelming majority of them will find jobs in the private sector, working at hospitals, private physician practices, long-term care facilities and other clinical operations.

"Each of the colleges is going to vigorously market its program," Friedman said. "The assumption is because community colleges tend not to charge as much as large [private colleges], this will be affordable. In some circumstances, the community colleges are using the grant money to help students with tuition."

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 lmearian@computerworld.com.

Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies