New Employment Opportunities in Health Care IT

The health care sector in the United States is big and rapidly getting bigger. Health care expenditures were projected to reach $2.5 trillion in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Over the next 10 years, U.S. health care spending is predicted to nearly double.

Arguably, the factor that has fueled advancements in health care more than any other is technology. The digitization of information combined with powerful and inexpensive computing power has enabled previously unimaginable medical discoveries and new ways to diagnose and treat ailments. Technology has also had an enormous impact on the administration of the health care system. Yet most acknowledge the full potential of technology has yet to be realized.

The centerpiece of many recent discussions and proposals for reforming the health care system is the use of technology. Opportunities undoubtedly exist to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the health care system.

There are several reasons why health care is an appealing destination for IT professionals today. Health care is one of the few industries least affected by up-and-down gyrations in the economy. It’s also primed for an influx of new investment, spurred in large part by the Obama administration’s setting aside of $1.2 billion in federal stimulus money for deployments of electronic medical records systems and other health care IT initiatives.

Estimates pegged the U.S. health care IT market at more than $25 billion in 2009. Future growth forecasts vary depending on assumptions, but most predict substantial increases in spending over the next five years.

But as is the case with virtually any technology solution, an educated, trained and certified IT workforce is required if patients and caregivers are to fully realize all of the benefits of tech innovation.

Over the next 12 months, an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 new IT positions are expected to be created in the health care sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics “Career Guide to Industries,” which was published in 2009.

What skills are required to secure one of these jobs? Like many industries, health care employers are in need of IT workers with security skills, project management experience and networking qualifications.

Last fall, industry trade association CompTIA surveyed nearly 400 IT companies about their work with health care customers. The greatest percentage provide networking services, such as installation or maintenance, followed by software deployment and support, and security and data back-up services. But, increasingly, technology is permeating all areas of medical practice and is now used extensively by medical professionals. Nearly all IT firms doing business in the health care market said they provide custom application development. One in three IT firms believes their health care sector clients will definitely embrace a cloud computing model.

Beyond core hardware and software, health care IT workers will be engaged with industry-specific applications and devices, most notably electronic medical record (EMR) systems, also called electronic health record (EHR) systems. Health care providers also are using electronic patient scheduling systems, billing systems and patient administration systems at increasingly higher rates. For the IT worker considering entry into the health care field, consider these systems similar to the customer relationship management (CRM) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems that are prevalent in many organizations.

In addition to improving business processes within health care practices, technology has the potential to play a significant role in enhancing interactions and communications between patient and doctor. Many health care providers will need to bolster their Web presence and increase their use of communication tools and social media. Opportunities exist for savvy IT workers with the expertise to tie it all together.

As health care providers expand their use of technology, we’re also likely to see the evolution of new hybrid jobs that require skills from both the worlds of IT and health.

For example, an IT implementation support specialist who would be responsible for building, installing and making sure a software system and technology solution works likely would require skills more heavily weighted toward an IT background. But a medical practice workflow specialist who maps how the work and document flow operates in an EMR systems has a greater job requirement for health care skills with some IT experience and training.

The exact mix of IT and health care skills required for these hybrid jobs is still taking shape. The federal government has pledged to develop workforce training programs to meet the demand for these workers. But the diagnosis is good for new employment opportunities in health care IT.

Todd Thibodeaux is the president and CEO of CompTIA, a nonprofit trade association for the IT industry. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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