Hiring Qualified Healthcare IT Staff

March 31, 2014
Marisa Torrieri

Finding the right kind of IT help to move your practice forward.

As CIO for Atrius Health, a Massachusetts-based alliance of physician groups, a home health agency, and a hospice, that includes more than 50 medical practices and 1.2 million patients, Daniel Moriarty manages a small army of about 200 IT workers. Yet while you'd think having so much technology talent on hand would be sufficient, Moriarty only sees his needs for more dedicated help growing in coming years.

"We're up about 35 people over five years ago," says Moriarty, adding that the growth has been due to a number of different factors. "We became one of the Pioneer ACO organizations. … That triggered a whole series of different IT requirements in terms of improved care coordination, additional investments, and population management to identify and manage our highest-risk patients … and we have had new practices join Atrius as well. More recently, it's ICD-10, meaningful use Stage 2, continuing the build out of the [health information exchange]. So frankly, we really see no end in sight in terms of the growing demands and new areas [of IT]."

While Moriarty manages a large IT staff for a huge network of practices, his growing need for IT staff is an issue that transcends practice size. Even small practices are in need of dedicated IT help. But determining what kind of help and how much you need is difficult. What's more, the market for qualified healthcare IT help is competitive, as demand is increasing far faster than the supply of talent.

Here's how to figure out what you need - and how to get it.

Why you need qualified IT staff

A late 2013 report by consulting firm Research and Markets reveals the North American healthcare information technology market is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 7.4 percent to reach $31.3 billion by 2017 from $21.9 billion in 2012. Physicians Practice's own 2013 Technology Survey, Sponsored by ZirMed, which received responses from more than 1,200 physicians, reveals practices are relying on a growing slew of software and services: More than three out of four respondents said their practice has a fully implemented EHR (or uses one from its hospital parent). A whopping 70 percent of practices use billing or coding software, and 44 percent have implemented a patient portal. More than one out of three physician practices say they're part of a health information exchange (HIE).

But managing all that technology themselves is too much for most practices to bear - unless physicians and/or administrative staff possess an IT background.

"You're going to have desktop support needs, network needs, hardware installation and maintenance, server infrastructure, applications development and support, management, reporting, upgrades … and then now we're getting more and more into mobility," says Dallas-based John Whitham, who leads consulting firm ECG's national healthcare IT practice. "For any organization, that's a really tall task. It's really hard to be able to scale those services without looking for some kind of external help."

Figuring out your needs

IT talent runs the gamut of basic desktop support to highly skilled experts who are well-versed in everything from EHRs to HIPAA compliance. Just as the type of help varies, so do your practice's needs. But two things, primarily, should drive your hiring decisions.

The first is your actual, day-to-day, tech-support requirements.

"Practices need to look at the functions that they need, and a lot of it is going to depend on their specific situation," says Whitham. "What's their relationship with their hospital? Are they in an urban or rural setting? We need to look at what is the most effective way to get the most for the least amount."

A lot of times a practice will be able to save money if they share a full-time employee with a hospital, he adds.

"A lot of hospitals have affiliate programs, and are offering or sponsoring EHRs for independent physician practices," says Whitham, noting that hospitals sometimes offer IT support along with the technology. "Even if not, ask [your hospital partner] what they're doing or willing to do, because more often than not, there might be some scale in the community."

Second, your practice must consider its budget. A dedicated desktop-support staff member will run your practice about $40,000 to $50,000 per year plus benefits, notes Whitham.

But if you want someone to do more than desktop support - to actually run the technology systems that are becoming increasingly important to medical practices - you'll have to part with much more: upwards of $100,000 per year, says Beverley Caddigan, president of New York-based IT consulting firm Bevtek Solutions, which employs a national team of IT engineer contractors who can oversee everything from desktop support to EHR management and data-breach prevention efforts.

Many of the company's clients are small- to medium-size practices. That's because the pricing model for consulting is based on economies of scale, as one engineer can work with multiple practices, says Caddigan. For example, some smaller practices opt for a $500-a-month IT management-services package, which fulfills most of their IT needs. Even premium packages are far less expensive than a dedicated full- or part-time worker, she adds.

"There are number of advantages to hiring a consulting firm," says Caddigan. "IT firms are up to date with what is going on. Very often full-time or even part-time IT staff, they aren't as fully trained as you need them to be or want them to be because they're not getting the support they need to do their job."

Top qualities

Whether your practice is seeking a full-time IT staffer (or two), or wants to hire an IT consulting firm, your ideal IT help should possess certain skills. Three of the most important include:

• Healthcare IT experience. While larger operations like Moriarty's can get away with having IT staff members who lack specific healthcare experience, as there are enough with healthcare experience to balance things out, the smaller the practice the more important experience is. Knowing how to use and work with technology without violating HIPAA security rules is especially critical."The first question I'm going to ask is, 'Are you familiar with HIPAA compliance, and are you familiar with what I need to do with my networks to ensure I don't find myself in breach?'" says Caddigan.

• Great analytic skills. Someone with great analytic skills will be able to see a practice's long-term needs. For example, when it comes to implementing an EHR, an analytic person will have a clearer understanding of clinical work flow - and how an EHR should be set up to support that work flow, says Bruce Metz, the CIO and a senior vice president at Lahey Health, an integrated healthcare delivery network serving Northern Massachusetts.

• Motivation. "It really helps if people are just really motivated to make a difference," says Metz. "This is a unique opportunity in healthcare. We really are trying to elevate the quality of patient care and safety in dramatic ways. We found a lot of success with people who are highly motivated when they understand, not only do I get to be a member of a high-performing team, but I get to learn some new skills and broaden my horizons and make a difference."

For more on what to ask potential healthcare IT staff, as well as what qualities you should look for, visit bit.ly/healthIThelp.

Securing top-notch talent

If finding qualified IT help weren't hard enough, most practices are also dealing with the reality that there's more demand for qualified IT professionals than supply.

This means you have to focus on selling your practice to candidates.

During interviews with potential candidates, Moriarty strives to stress Atrius' "great culture where people are doing really cutting-edge things, and market-leading activities."

He also emphasizes the organization's mission "to make it easier for patients and communities to be healthy by developing innovative, high-quality, and efficient models for delivering care" across the range of healthcare settings.

"This inspires dedicated and passionate people who want to make impactful changes to improve the health of a large population to join our team and that is what we are looking for," says Moriarty. "A lot of people who come here versus, for instance, going into financial services, [do it] because they feel they are contributing to something that makes a difference. It does matter to them."

Marisa Torrieri is an associate editor at Physicians Practice. She can be reached at marisa.torrieri@ubm.com.

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Physicians Practice.