Saturday, December 22, 2012

Knowns and Unknowns About the Health IT Workforce

I have had the opportunity over the last few months to serve on a Federal Advisory Committee (FACA) workgroup focused on health information technology (HIT) workforce policy recommendations for one of the two main HIT advisory committees to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT. It has been a pleasure to interact with a diverse cross-section of people who have interest in workforce issues.

One of my pleas to the group has been to seek more data to inform our (at this point potential) policy prescriptions. I am a person who prefers to make decisions based on data. I know that we cannot always get the data we need or want to make a decision, and sometimes we are not able to get data at all. But everything else being equal, I prefer to have my decisions driven by facts that have some basis in evidence.

We are starting to some additional data emerge. Led by Dr. Susan Fenton, the state of Texas has carried out a series of focus groups of HIT employers in the state. The larger report of this work was recently distilled down to a journal article (Fenton S, Joost E, Gongora-Ferraez M. Health information technology knowledge and skills needed by HIT employers. Applied Clinical Informatics. 2012;3:448-61.). The emerging results present some interesting conclusions:

  1. Employers report needing a diversity of skills and knowledge
  2. The usual adage of needing knowledge of healthcare seems to be increasingly complemented by the need to understand and know how to work with data
  3. In additional to skills and knowledge, ability to think critically and solve problems is key
  4. There is no consensus on optimal career paths

The second point is borne out in some additional data that was presented to the group by Norma Morganti, another member of the workgroup who also directs the Midwest Community College Health Information Technology Consortium, one of the five ONC Community College Consortium programs. She convened a focus group in Ohio to ascertain competencies for the workforce involved in HIT aspects of health system transformation, particularly the primary care medical home. Among the critical competencies required are those requiring population management and data analytics.

These data support a shift we are noticing in our own program for skills of our graduates. While knowledge of healthcare is still key, there seems to be a growing preference among those who hire our graduates for those with strong data skills and understanding. This really is not surprising, given the shift I described earlier this year in the focus of the work of informatics from implementation (many healthcare organizations have already done that) to analytics (now they need to figure out what to do with the data).

It will be interesting to see how this trend evolves. I am fairly certain (though as always, will change my views if supported by the data!) that there will be a growing need among informatics professionals to know how to make use of data to improve health, healthcare, research, etc.. After all, that is the primary of purpose of informatics, to make use of data and information to improve all aspects of human health.

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