Healthcare struggles when hiring for HIT

Healthcare continues to struggle when hiring for health IT

U.S. healthcare providers nationwide have continued to experience difficulties with hiring and retaining experienced information technology professionals needed for the evolving healthcare environment, according to new research conducted by global professional services company Towers Watson.

The Towers Watson survey, which included responses from more than 100 healthcare providers and hospitals, found that two-thirds (67 percent) are having difficulties attracting experienced IT workers, and 38 percent are reporting retention concerns. Officials say the staffing problems prove even greater for Epic-certified professionals, with nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of the respondents reporting difficulty hiring these individuals, whose specialized skills are essential to meet new electronic medical record requirements under healthcare reform.

“Hospitals have an urgent need for experienced, highly skilled IT professionals to ensure they can meet new government requirements and qualify for financial incentives,” said Heidi Toppel, a senior rewards consultant in Towers Watson’s hospital industry group, in a press statement. “In addition, the ability to share patient care information and records accurately and seamlessly with a range of other providers will be essential to achieving patient satisfaction and quality-of-care outcomes in a more integrated approach to healthcare delivery.”

George McCulloch, deputy CIO at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Healthcare IT News in an October interview that one solution for other struggling CIOs may be to hire experts outside the healthcare industry, particularly for non-application-based needs. "On the infrastructure side, we've certainly taken people outside the industry," says McCulloch. He explains that up to 50 percent of IT staff at Vanderbuilt University Medical Center are not from healthcare backgrounds.  The survey also found that one obstacle in providers’ ability to recruit and retain IT employees is some misconceptions about what attracts employees to a healthcare organization for employment in the first place.

According to an earlier Towers Watson survey, healthcare workers ranked job security, competitive base pay, healthcare benefits, convenient work location and career advancement opportunities as the primary reasons for accepting an offer of employment with a healthcare provider. 

However, in a complementary survey of healthcare employers, Towers Watson officials found that, with the exception of job security, healthcare employers did not rank any of these same elements when considering drivers of attraction for IT and Epic-certified employees. Instead, they identified challenging work as the most important factor in attracting an IT employee to an organization, followed by the employer’s reputation as a great place to work. They ranked base salary eighth on the overall list of draws for employees.

“The stark differences between the factors that employers believe attract IT employees and those that employees themselves say attract them are quite surprising. What’s clear is that employees are focused on the practical, while employers are focused on the developmental. The good news is that the vast majority of employers are taking steps to close the talent gap, and seek more balance in their employee value proposition and rewards program,” said Laurie Bienstock, North American rewards leader at Towers Watson, in a press statement.

According to the survey, more than half (55 percent) of respondents are taking at least three measures to address their attraction and retention issues with IT professionals. Among the most effective are increasing base pay rates, offering retention bonuses and providing additional education and training.

“Given the importance of a competitive salary in attracting IT and Epic professionals, healthcare providers should take whatever steps they can to meet this need. But focusing on money is only part of the solution. Presenting career and growth opportunities remains important as well, and savvy employers will create as comprehensive a program as possible. Our data confirm that IT recruiting in the healthcare industry is a matter of striking the right balance between the practical needs of workers today and the longer-term goal of helping an industry transform itself for a different future,” added Toppel.

McCulloch said current concerns about retention may reflect apprehension over the increasing number of IT projects, which include EMRs, ICD-10 planning, health information exchange initiatives and other efforts surrounding IT and hospital operations. "Retention is important because information systems need constant care and attention once they're implemented," he added. "Clinical systems are complex, are regularly being updated, and new clinical staff must be trained to use them as well. Being able to retain IT staff familiar with an organization's systems is crucial for CIOs."

Ultimately, because of the myriad projects healthcare IT professionals are currently faced with, Alan Kravitz, founder and CEO of healthcare IT consulting firm MedSys Group Consulting, told sister-brand Healthcare IT News last November that "It will most likely get worse before it gets better."