Do Health IT Hires Need A Clinical Background?

The debate on which qualifications an IT job candidate needs to work in a hospital or medical practice rages.

Paul Cerrato, Contributor

February 16, 2012

3 Min Read

If you've kept up with the news in recent months, you're aware of the shortage of qualified IT professionals to fill positions in hospitals and medical practices. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs in health informatics will jump by 18% by 2016 and expects there will be shortage of about 50,000 health IT workers over the next five years.

Few people challenge those statistics, but what's upsetting job candidates is that many health IT managers only want people with a clinical background.

Essentially, the debate revolves around this issue: Is it easier to teach an IT generalist the clinical principles needed to work in a hospital or practice, or teach a clinician the general IT principles?

[ Is it time to re-engineer your Clinical Decision Support system? See 10 Innovative Clinical Decision Support Programs. ]

Juliet Daniel, MD, senior director of medical informatics for Community Health Systems, which is responsible for more than 130 hospitals in 29 states, thinks the latter. During a phone interview, Daniel said it's important for someone working in health IT to "understand what it's like to use an EHR" from an end user's perspective. "Healthcare and clinical workflow are just so important, and if you're an IT person and don't understand it, it's hard for you to be influential."

At the managerial level, a clinical background certainly has advantages, especially if you're in a liaison position, as Daniel is. She spends part of her time translating the IT department's capabilities and limitations to clinicians who want to tweak the IT tools so they improve patient care. A comparable position at a company in another industry might be business analyst.

But Daniel thinks the preference for clinical training should even extend, for example, to the IT staffers who set up a clinical database. Building electronic order sets for a CPOE or modifying an order to fit the hospital's drug formulary is best handled by someone who understands clinical workflow, in her opinion.

I'm sure many experienced generalists would question that point of view and, in fact, I recently spoke with the CIO of a major health system who takes just such a contrary view.

During a phone conversation with Larry Stofko, until recently the CIO of St Joseph's Health System in Southern California and now executive VP for its Innovation Institute, he explained the partnership that existed between himself and his clinical counterpart, CMIO Dr. Clyde Wesp. Although Stofko and his managers were responsible for IT systems and Wesp for the clinical application of that technology, several of their managers have moved back and forth between the two groups.

Someone on the generic IT side who had an affinity for physician relationships, for instance, might shift to the CMIO's group to work on IT projects directly related to patient care. A clinician doing clinical data quality and analysis might transfer to the IT organization to run a data warehouse. One caveat Stofko was quick to mention about hiring someone with no medical background: St. Joseph's runs an informal "week in the life of a clinician" program to give IT pros a better understanding of patient care.

So is it easier to teach an IT generalist the clinical principles needed to work in a hospital or practice setting, or the other way around? St Joseph's has proved you can move people in either direction, regardless of their background. The bottom line: If a job candidate has drive, a high IQ--and an affinity for healthcare--there are almost no limits on what he or she can accomplish.

Healthcare providers must collect all sorts of performance data to meet emerging standards. The new Pay For Performance issue of InformationWeek Healthcare delves into the huge task ahead. Also in this issue: Why personal health records have flopped. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

Paul Cerrato


Paul Cerrato has worked as a healthcare editor and writer for 30 years, including for InformationWeek Healthcare, Contemporary OBGYN, RN magazine and Advancing OBGYN, published by the Yale University School of Medicine. He has been extensively published in business and medical literature, including Business and Health and the Journal of the American Medical Association. He has also lectured at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons and Westchester Medical Center.

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