A war for talent: CIOs detail the challenges of retaining health IT professionals

With the global increase in demand for IT professionals, health system CIOs are competing with Big Tech and federal agencies for technology talent. But the healthcare sector sometimes struggles to keep tech talent on board as workers seek higher incomes and other perks that the industry can't always offer.

Becker's asked five health system CIOs and tech leaders: What is the hardest thing about retaining tech talent?

Note: Their responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Al Smith. Senior Vice President and CIO of LifePoint Health (Brentwood, Tenn.): We're in this global competition. It used to be: Everybody came in, everybody works in Marquette, Mich. Silicon Valley's not going to pick off somebody who's a good tech person in Marquette, Mich. Now with COVID/work from home, etc., that's no longer the case.

Now instead of being a local marketplace, it's at least a national marketplace. That makes it much easier for talent to migrate from company to company.

In some ways I have to really question — take cybersecurity as an example — do I need to outsource it to somebody, somebody who maybe can compete on a bigger scale than I can, who can get that tech talent, who can grow the tech talent, and then can pay them market rates where I just may not be able to compete? That's something that all of us need to look at. I don't love that, but it's the world we live in.

The other thing we do to retain talent is work from home. We're probably 90 to 95 percent work from home. I think most health systems have moved that way. We've been pretty aggressive in that. But that's almost like a ticket to ride these days. It's not a differentiator. If you don't do it, you're losing people. You kind of have to do it.

Work from home has a lot of challenges. It's harder to create culture and harder to create the feeling that "I belong to LifePoint, to their mission, etc." But that's something we're just going to have to continue to wrestle with as we go forward. That genie left the bottle. It's gone.

Angela Yochem. Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation and Digital Officer of Novant Health (Winston-Salem, N.C.): I don't think it's less or more challenging right now than it has been in the past. Although, I will say that when we do lose people, it is typically because they don't see a path. Talent of all sorts tend to leave companies, in my experience, when their personal growth trajectory and their personal needs and the needs of their family and what they need to continue to grow and expand no longer align with the roles we've asked them to play.

We as leaders need to be very cognizant of how what our people are doing aligns not just with what we need to have done, but with how they want to grow. Is it something that will allow them to get to the next level, whatever that means for them? It may not be on an organizational level — it may be just expanded experience. We need to keep very close tabs on that.

Ash Goel, MD. Senior Vice President of Information Technology and CIO of Bronson Healthcare (Kalamazoo, Mich.): Keeping up with the demands of the market and healthcare staffing in the last two years has been challenging as we have gone through a huge inflationary cycle.

Historically, we had pretty low turnover rates because of various things that we had in place, including career pathways, student talent pipeline and mechanisms for people's ability to grow within the organization. But that's out the window now.

CIOs can't keep up with the $30,000 to $40,000 raises that some of these individuals are getting outside of healthcare.

Beth Lindsay-Wood. Senior Vice President and CIO of City of Hope (Duarte, Calif.): It's that re-recruitment: What does your roadmap look like for your career? What's important to you as a member of the team?

We have to grow and develop our talent because the technology is changing every day. So we need people that used to do this to be able to do this. In the old days, we didn't have enterprise architects. We didn't have scrum masters. We now need to cultivate our team to learn these new things as the healthcare and IT industry changes.

Craig Kwiatkowski, PharmD. Senior Vice President of Enterprise Information Systems and CIO of Cedars-Sinai (Los Angeles): The last two-plus years of COVID disrupted some long-standing assumptions around talent and ways of working. Our IT workforce is now primarily hybrid, a mixture of remote and on-site, along with a cohort of folks who are exclusively remote and who may even live in other areas of the country.

There was certainly a demand for remote work before. This is more than a demand at this point. It's an imperative from our staff to have flexibility of where they work and when they work. And we're looking to support that as best we can. Our staff living in the greater L.A. metropolitan region in many cases were spending two to three hours a day in traffic, which I think by any measure is pretty difficult.

It's really been impactful to give that time back to folks who can do things to better balance their work and their life — go do some yoga, meditate, take the kid to a soccer game, make dinner, do things that you enjoy, which I think has been a really nice win for our staff.

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