With the growing number of responsibilities that are put on healthcare organization’s plates, the demand for qualified health IT workers is as high as it’s ever been—a notion confirmed by a recent survey from the Chicago-based analytics arm of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) which found that 84 percent of organizations hired at least one staff member in 2014.
What’s more, last year's HIMSS Workforce Survey indicated that 31 percent of healthcare organizations had to place IT initiatives on hold due to staffing shortages, while 43 percent cited the lack of a qualified talent pool as a challenge to appropriately meeting their staffing needs. Three of four respondents in this survey said they plan to hire additional staff in the coming year.
To help patient care organizations meet these demands, the Pittsburgh, Pa.-based Stoltenberg Consulting launched the Consultant Development Program nearly four years ago, with the goal to provide hospitals with cost-effective outsourced staff resources that simultaneously boost the talent level of the healthcare IT job market. Stoltenberg, which has been in the health IT industry for approximately 20 years, works with more than 200 clients ranging from large academic medical centers and specialty hospitals, to community hospitals and physician practices. The development program has four major categories: application training, project management principles, hospital workflows, and industry standards and principles.
According to Stoltenberg executives, to date, hospitals that have leveraged the programs “Consultant I” graduates have seen more than 25 percent increase in cost savings on IT implementation projects, with the value and contributions of the consultants adding to an even greater overall ROI. Overall, the Consultant I’s spent more than 2,000 hours in training for projects, nearly 9,000 hours on projects and over 15,000 hours serving the help desk service line from Stoltenberg, over the course of the program, which can cost trainees up to $70,000 per year. The consulting firm’s vice president, Shane Pilcher, recently dove deeper into the nuances of the program with Healthcare Informatics Associate Editor Rajiv Leventhal. Below are excerpts of that interview.
Why did Stoltenberg decide to launch its development program?
One thing we have always found important is that we wanted to give back to the health IT community. We have long noticed the lack of resources and lack of health IT professionals, and of course when meaningful use came in, that already small pool of resources evaporated. The organizations that had good resources held onto them, and there just weren’t enough to go around. So we felt the need to develop that talent and be able to provide to the industry. Our program that focused on new college graduates; we want to take our 20 years of experience and start training them and transferring that knowledge to them so it could decrease that learning curve and get them out in the industry faster to help with all of the issues that are going on.
How are the program’s students selected?
We have a very rigorous selection process, and we think that’s what separates us from other programs. Part of that is working with colleges to make sure that while they’re going to college, they’re getting the skills and education that we need to build upon. Also, we have partnered with a few universities that we are familiar with and have confidence in their education programs. And in some cases were even able to influence some of that training. We believe in having some exposure to a healthcare-related field, but also having a business foundation—we have seen that combination work best. The candidates we have pulled into our program have been amazing.
What makes your consultants’ skill set so unique?
It starts with our selection process, as I mentioned. You need to make sure they have somewhat of a healthcare foundation from an education perspective as well as an understanding of business fundamentals. That gives us a strong foundation to build on. We have a proprietary internal development program where we take our senior consultants and all their combined years of experience to create training programs. This allows our Consultant 1’s to get the necessary information, best practices and knowledge, as well as experience one-on-one mentoring with our senior consultants in the field.
Another area they spend a lot of time on in the first six months is at the Help Desk. That service line provides Tier 1 and optional Tier 2 and Tier 3 support for clients. It’s a very safe place for them to get exposed to healthcare IT, and understand the interactions between users and health IT systems, as well as troubleshooting. It provides consultants a foundation so when they walk onto that first project, they have a comfort level.
As a result of all this, there have been some big organizations—University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), University of Rochester Medical Center, and Mountain States Health Alliance to name a few—that have utilized our consultants in numerous ways. As an example, one organization was going for a simultaneous go-live of more than 35 health IT solutions in a 12-month period. That’s obviously a huge undertaking, and within that year, the organization moved from a paper system to paperless, going from HIMSS Stage 1 to Stage 6 on the Electronic Medical Record Adoption Model (EMRAM) scale in a year. We had between two and four Consultant 1’s at various times to help this organization, and they were one of the big reasons that the switch to digital records happened. The tasks they did freed up some of the senior analysts to focus on higher level tasks, and allowed them to keep the budget in line but still have resources as needed.
What other health IT-related projects might Consultant 1’s work upon completion of your program?
They are usually initially brought in to do the data entry, security-related, user training-related, and workflow-related tasks. Once they have been on the project for a short period of time, organizations realize that they underestimated the value of those consultants, and pulled them into other areas of the project even up to the point of development of clinical documentation, and computerized physician order entry (CPOE). It has sprung from financial systems to clinical systems.
Are the consultants who get hired full-time or project-based employees?
Consultants are a project-based resource, but there are programs where we can transition into full-time if the organizations wants to take advantage of that. The majority have been project-based, and the program itself is a three-year program, with the ability to graduate two years into it depending on the consultant’s level of expertise and experience he or she develops. Ninety percent of our consultants have been able to graduate within that two-year period.
What has the feedback been from clients that have leveraged your consultants?
University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center (UMASS) is one organization that has utilized our Consultant 1’s. They have told us that our people don’t have a ton of experience, but are head and shoulders above other resources they get from private consulting firms. In some cases they have even said that they are at the senior consultant level this yearly in their careers. With the lack of resources out there we knew it would be an important program, but it’s especially impressive how our graduates have progressed right away. One hundred percent of our graduates are still in health IT industry, either as consultants for us (75 percent) or working for organizations (25 percent).
Do your senior consultants find it challenging to make the time to mentor your trainees?
The majority have embraced it wholeheartedly. They know that there is a need, and as many of get older, they know that need for qualified professionals will go on long after we retire. One thing I have always thought, going back to my military days, is “see one, do one, teach one.” And they get a lot out of this training, too. They’re very excited about that opportunity.
Have any other health IT consultant development programs experienced this kind of success?
The problem is that many are vendor-specific training programs. Epic, for example, will hire recent college graduates and put them on projects. Many vendors have taken that approach to replenish their employee ranks with fresh college graduates, but the biggest feedback I have received is that everyone is green—they are put on projects and are learning at the expense of the client. So the way I see it, there are a lot of programs out there, but none that have had the kind of success we have had.