Hiring Health IT Staff

January 27, 2011

Good tech support staff is crucial to achieving successful EHR implementation and other priorities like interoperability. Here’s how to find the health IT support you need.

You've selected an EHR and are moving full steam ahead on implementation. Plus, you've placed network interoperability high on your priority list, and you're considering a patient portal.

But who's going to provide the tech support for these sophisticated tools?

The buzz around federal incentive funding for EHRs has prompted many practices to move quickly on new tech tools - and it's created a shortage in qualified health IT workers. By the federal government's estimate, an additional 50,000 health IT workers will be needed over the next five years to meet federal meaningful use requirements. The skills necessary for supporting health IT have evolved beyond basic IT support, making it all the more difficult to fill the gaps.

Here is some help for finding, hiring, and keeping skilled health IT staff in your practice.

Tech knowledge

The need for health IT workers is greater than ever and the federal government recognizes the gap. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT has awarded more than $80 million to academic consortia to help train IT professionals. And colleges and universities around the country are answering the call.

One such program that has been developed to meet the anticipated growth in workforce is at the Oregon Institute of Technology, which this year graduated its first class in health informatics.

Rather than follow your typical IT curriculum, the program aims to equip graduates with an understanding of medical practices' unique needs.

"They [students] really need to understand what clinical work flow is all about, and how those clinicians and office personnel are going to be using these technologies," says program director Michael Kirschner, who was interviewed recently for a Physicians Practice podcast. He says students also need to know how to customize health data systems for practices, and optimize and analyze available data.

It's no longer sufficient that a prospective IT hire or contractor have general software and networking experience. The healthcare systems - as well as the fast-paced, urgent nature of a medical practice - require a deeper and more specific knowledge set.

Indeed, a health IT worker must understand the business, rather than simply be a technologist, says Indranil "Neal" Ganguly, vice president and chief information officer at CentraState Healthcare System in Freehold, N.J. "So much involves more than IT," he says. For a practice to take advantage of the technology there must be understanding of work flow adjustments and practice operations.

You also need more than a PC specialist these days. Any health IT specialist you bring on board should have a strong understanding of complex applications and system networking, especially as data interoperability becomes central to healthcare delivery. Ideally, you can find a solid health IT employee with experience working at another practice of similar size, but at least one with knowledge of EHR, practice management, and billing systems.

Staff smarts

For many practices, addressing IT needs brings up a critical question: Should you hire someone on staff or contract out the tech duties?

It depends, says consultant Bruce Kleaveland. In many cases, particularly for smaller practices, it makes sense to assign a staff member to coordinate third-party resources brought in as needed. "The beauty is you are able to get the services you need, on an as-needed basis, without expanding your overhead," he says.

At some point, however, it makes sense to bring on a full-time IT worker, he adds. Mid-size practices with EHRs, for example, might benefit more from in-house support. That point usually becomes clear when the amount you're paying for a contractor exceeds what you would dole out for a full-time staffer, Kleaveland says.

Regardless of whether you choose in-house support or outsource, other staff members are going to need to be brought into the technology fold.

"All practices are going to have to deputize certain individuals within the practice to take responsibility for certain IT functions," Kleaveland says. "That doesn’t mean they are the 'gearhead' doing bits and bytes. They have a broad responsibility to own some aspect of the IT infrastructure and work with third parties."

For smaller practices, it might be sufficient to split those duties among the physician and administrators, but for larger groups, spread the responsibility around by giving each staffer a system to manage. Remember, they don’t have to be experts - they just need a basic knowledge of how the system works and who to call when it doesn't.

Ganguly agrees: "The entire staff needs some tech knowledge." At a minimum, everyone needs to be able to work the basic systems on which the practice runs. Practice managers will likely need more training, and not just on the system, but also on analytics and processes that allow the practice to really use the data culled in the EHR.

Hire right

Now that you have an idea of what to look for, where should you look? Here are a few points to get you started:

• Ask other practices. IT staff experience in a practice of similar size and specialty would be ideal, and word of mouth is usually an effective recruitment method, Kleaveland says. Particularly when seeking an IT firm to outsource support, get feedback from colleagues about a contractor's skill level. Also ask about customer service and availability. An IT firm might have top-notch healthcare technology skills, but if the company is too busy and hasn't beefed up its own ranks to handle the new business, you could wind up frustrated.

• Ask your vendor. Your software vendor might have a few recommendations for IT firms they have used in the past, Kleaveland says.

• Ask your local hospital. Particularly if your local hospital is offering a subsidized or sponsored EHR for its practices, your hospital might also be offering tech support. Kleaveland notes, however, that hospital staff is likely trained to handle the needs of a large institution, not a small business office. But, hospital IT support staff have already been vetted and trained on the healthcare IT systems, says Jorge Grillo, chief information officer at Canton Potsdam Hospital in Potsdam, N.Y., which employs and supports about 50 physicians. The hospital has taken care of the hiring process, which many physicians don't have time for.

Whether you bring an IT staff member on board or hire a contractor to handle the duties, remember to seek out tech support with a broad knowledge of healthcare systems, as well as someone who is eager to take on the challenge, says consultant Judy Capko. "You just have to pick someone who loves working with computers and solving problems, who works independently, likes challenges, and accepts responsibility."

(For more on hiring and training health IT workers, listen to the podcast with Michael Kirschner.)

Sara Michael is editorial director for Diagnostic Imaging. She can be reached at sara.michael@ubm.com.

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Physicians Practice.