Does Your Health IT Career Require Another Diploma?

Breaking into health IT isn't easy. Going back to school for more training is a good place to start.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates a shortage of about 50,000 health IT workers over the next five years. That stat may have you wondering if a degree in medical or nursing informatics is worth the cost.

Maybe you already have years of general IT experience and want to switch to healthcare IT. Or maybe you're a clinician with relatively little IT experience and want to jump the fence. What's the best path to take in each of these situations when considering healthcare IT training?

Switching To Health IT

Many IT pros with experience outside healthcare complain that they can't get hired in healthcare because they aren't RNs or MDs. Quite a few healthcare institutions prefer their IT staff have a combination of IT and clinical skills.

[For more background on e-prescribing tools, see 6 E-Prescribing Vendors To Watch.]

One IT professional who successfully made the switch from generic IT to healthcare discussed some of the reasons hospitals are looking for job candidates with a medical background in recent post on InformationWeek Healthcare's website. "AustinIT" says:

"Solving the IT modernization of healthcare is not as easy as populating a facility with a few servers and PCs with some EHR software sprinkled on top. ... IT has to understand the clinical workflow and the diagnostic devices that will interface into the network and software architecture (EKG, Lab, CT, Xray, PACS, etc.). IT has to take into account all of these various systems in order to knit them together with EHRs."

However, most IT workers are pretty smart, so it's hard to imagine a veteran working in financial IT, for instance, having much of a problem learning the clinical workflow, and how the various diagnostic devices interact with the IT system. So I have no doubt many non-medical IT workers would have no trouble making it in the healthcare world.

It all comes down to how badly an organization needs help. If it has to choose between an IT pro with knowledge of healthcare and one without, most hiring managers would choose someone who has worked in a clinical setting. But many providers no longer have that luxury. Their need is urgent and HR managers need to bend a little.

Nonetheless, if the organizations you're reaching out to expect familiarity with the healthcare industry, a degree program that concentrates specifically on health informatics has some advantages. I recently spoke with Patricia Fintland, who's working on her master's degree in health informatics at Northeastern University. While she wasn't working in IT before enrolling, her comments on the program are relevant to those who are. Many of her instructors are CIOs and IT managers at major Boston healthcare facilities. Fintland pointed out that their in-the-trenches knowledge of health IT, plus the networking relationships you develop with these movers and shakers, are two reasons to consider programs like this.

Moving From Clinic To IT Suite

Given the preference that many HR departments have for IT pros who do have a medical background, this certainly looks like an opportunity for physicians and nurses to move from the clinic to the IT department.

Steven Orlow, MD, who serves as both chief medical information officer and medical director of the cardiac catheterization laboratory at Lutheran Hospital of Indiana in Fort Wayne, saw the value of bolstering his IT credentials with a master's degree in medical informatics and is finishing up a program at Northwestern University.

Besides the basic networking and database management courses, Orlow spoke highly of a leadership course that encouraged a teamwork approach rather than the autocratic management style that physicians have traditionally been taught. Coursework on the legal aspects of health IT opened his eyes to the potential pitfalls of working with clinical decision support systems.

So whether you're a seasoned IT pro or a clinician looking to make the switch to IT, there are opportunities out there. And while a medical background may give you an edge, having a degree in health informatics will likely help land a position regardless of your background.

When are emerging technologies ready for clinical use? In the new issue of InformationWeek Healthcare, find out how three promising innovations--personalized medicine, clinical analytics, and natural language processing--show the trade-offs. Download the issue now. (Free registration required.)