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Addressing Health IT Staffing Challenges and Talent Gaps

August 24, 2016
by Heather Landi
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Rebecca Quammen, founder and CEO of Quammen Health Care Consultants, discusses the unique staffing challenges facing healthcare executive leaders in the area of health IT
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The ongoing demand for health IT in healthcare delivery organizations, stemming from objectives such as meaningful use attestation as well as population health and data analytics initiatives, has resulted in a corresponding demand for a skilled health IT workforce. Many studies have indicated that as healthcare continues to digitize, there is a talent gap due to growing and emerging IT demands. According to the 2014 HIMSS Workforce Study released in 2015, nearly 70 percent of providers said the lack of qualified talent was the biggest challenge to achieving a fully staffed department and 30 percent said they scaled back or put an IT project on hold due to a shortage in staffing. Healthcare delivery organizations are increasingly finding that health IT professionals with the right skills and expertise are critical to the success of health IT implementations as well as moving forward on key improvement initiatives. Healthcare Informatics Assistant Editor Heather Landi recently spoke with Rebecca Quammen, founder and CEO of Quammen Health Care Consultants, to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing healthcare CIOs and IT leaders with regard to staffing and addressing the talent gap.

What are some of the biggest IT staffing challenges facing healthcare delivery organizations right now?

One significant challenge is just the frequent change cycles required to maintain currency in deployed applications, so just the demand for people. We’re in a time when electronic health record (EHR) vendors and other vendors of smaller applications that are being developed for niche requirements, these are all coming out so fast into the industry, and it’s so fast that there’s constant change. It seems we can’t get our breath, to stop and think and plan.

I still see every day that there is a huge deficit in local knowledge of what products can and can’t do to be able to architect a solution to meet needs. If a healthcare organization is a metropolitan area, there typically is a stronger base of candidates. However, so many thousands of hospitals across the nation are in communities in rural settings, so being able to attract, retain and train experts in these products, the people that can be on the ground working fast for IT initiatives, that’s a huge challenge.

There also is a huge deficit in the actual ability to recruit specific talent with experience in various IT products and EHR products. In my firm, we watch what’s going on with our clients and prospective websites where there are postings for open positions, and we see positions open for three months, six months and even longer periods of time. And the obvious impact of that on an organization is that they’ve lost opportunities during that time to continue to move their initiatives forward.

Rebecca Quammen

There are significant trends shaping healthcare delivery right now, such as the transition from volume-based to value-based care, which impacts clinical, business and financial operations. How is this impacting staffing demands?

The buzz around data analytics promotes the need for data scientists and data analysts as among the most sought-after roles, and that is problematic in and of itself. It’s creating a huge demand, but it’s also a demand that many healthcare organizations don’t know how to deal with right now. I see the buzz around data analytics increasing the pressure to “do something” with data, but many organizations across the nation, both large and small and in every setting of care, simply don’t have the foundational knowledge to manage the data to their benefit, and to know the database structure and how to get it the data out and what the data tells them when they get it. We are not an industry historically good at mining good, rich data out of products and doing something meaningful with it. We do traditional reporting and we may do a little bit of historical reporting, but we’re not good at looking at data to predict and promote and to work toward the future, or to see trends and do analysis across the organization. I’m excluding the largest 13 health systems across the nation that have a large staff of data analysts and data scientists. That’s not for the model for everybody in healthcare, that’s only the model for those large organizations, and they are good at it. All the other hospitals are trying to deal with changes in value-based and accountable care, and I think they have challenges there, so data analytics is a big one.

At the same time, traditional EHR vendors are not currently offering much support in this space with the exception of the emerging cloud-based solutions that are data-oriented in their design. The basic needs for report writers, so SQL, Crystal report developers, has been challenging to fulfill since the EHR deployments occurred with regard to resources who are intimate with the data structure of their clinical and financial systems.

Are there other health IT skills or expertise that are in demand now?

Cybersecurity threats have pushed security resources to the forefront, and cybersecurity is a challenge in the healthcare setting because security threats are internal and external as well as rule-based security, network-based security, and firewall-based security. Traditionally, there would be silos of knowledge in an organization for the network, for the firewalls, for the individual applications themselves.