Health IT Pros Are The New Cinderella

Growing demand and a new appreciation for HIT professionals means these experts are no longer the "computer geeks" no one wants to hang out with.

Health IT Pros Are The New Cinderella Growing demand and a new appreciation for HIT professionals means these experts are no longer the "computer geeks" no one wants to hang out with.

For a long time, health IT professionals were like Cinderella before the fairy godmother entered the story. Like Cinderella, they had a great deal of potential but no glamour, and seldom got much attention unless something went wrong or someone was barking orders. But it looks like Uncle Sam has become Cinderella's fairy godmother, and the HITECH Act the magic wand. With billions of dollars in stimulus act money being spent on health IT incentive programs, health information exchanges, and other initiatives, health IT pros are becoming the new and improved Cinderella.

The feds have been pushing for the widespread adoption of health IT among the nation's thousands of slow-poke doctors and hospitals for years. President George W. Bush in 2004 set the goal for most Americans to have e-health records by 2014, but with the signing by President Barack Obama of the HITECH Act in 2008, healthcare providers suddenly found a big financial incentive--and with it increasing competitive pressure--to transition patient information from paper, copy machines, and faxes to digitized e-health records, secure Web portals, and data exchange networks.

Hence, with thousands of clinicians demanding help rolling out these e-health systems now, it's clear that the relatively small pool of IT professionals who had already built up years of expertise in developing and supporting clinical information systems isn't big enough.

The feds have estimated the nation will need about 50,000 new health IT professionals in coming years to support the demand for special talents created by the HITECH Act's meaningful-use and other programs. HITECH also allotted more than $100 million for new HIT workforce programs, including programs at community colleges and universities. Many of the people completing the programs so far are midcareer health care or IT professionals who have received specialized health IT training, according to the Office of National Coordinator for Health IT. But the training programs are only part of this modern-day Cinderella story. Lots of other evidence indicates that health IT pros are climbing the ladder of opportunity and relevance:

– Health IT topped the list of jobs for college grads this year, according to a new study by the University of California, San Diego. The report projects that health IT jobs will surge 20%, creating more than 35,000 new jobs between 2008 and 2018.

– Last week the Office of National Coordinator for Health IT released new Health Information Technology Professionals Examinations "to identify those highly skilled individuals." The six tests recognize professionals with specific skill sets and roles within health IT, including clinician/practitioner consultant; implementation manager; implementation specialists; practice workflow and information management redesign specialist; technical/software support staff; and trainer. It's worth noting that in addition to those exams, health IT professionals can earn various other credentials from private organizations, such as Health IT Certification.

– Pay for health IT professionals is creeping up. In 2011, total cash compensation, including bonuses, for healthcare IT staff increased 1.3% to a median of $80,000, while managers' median pay rose 2.3% to $105,000, according to the InformationWeek Analytics 2011 U.S. IT salary survey of 1,430 health IT professionals. While the raises admittedly wouldn't be considered jaw-dropping during more robust economic times, the increases in pay are nearly double the raises of IT professionals across all industries, based on the 18,201 IT professionals who responded overall to the survey. So, now that Cinderella has been invited to the ball, what happens at midnight--or in this case, when the billions of dollars in funding for HITECH Act programs end around 2015? Will health IT pros' status, opportunities, and pay continue to climb? Or will demand for health IT professionals wane and these specialists again be underappreciated and relegated into the back room and relative anonymity?

I'm not sure it'll be all happily ever after, but something tells me "Cinderella" is here to stay.

The Healthcare IT Leadership Forum is a day-long venue where senior IT leaders in healthcare come together to discuss how they're using technology to improve clinical care. It happens in New York City on July 12. Find out more.

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee is a senior writer for InformationWeek.

In the new, all-digital InformationWeek Healthcare: iPads are leading a new wave of devices into the exam room. Are security, tech support, and infection control up to the task? Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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