How health system CIOs are overcoming IT staffing challenges

Hospital CIOs report that IT staffing remains a major challenge, as health systems compete with tech companies for employees and budgets are strained by rising salaries.

Becker's asked several healthcare CIOs about innovative solutions they've implemented to attract and retain talented tech workers.

Note: Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Ed McCallister, senior vice president and CIO of UPMC: At the entry level, our efforts start with our IT rotational and IT summer associate programs, where we are lucky enough to have excellent schools in our own backyard to draw from, including Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne and many others. This talent pipeline has been critical to building the future leaders of UPMC IT.

Of course, we also value and invest in diverse and highly experienced healthcare IT professionals from around the world. Those who choose to work for us — instead of Google, Amazon or other tech companies — typically have not only great IT skills but also the heart and passion for our mission of providing world-class care to our patients and health plan members. 

Retaining this skilled workforce requires continual investment in development and focus on the employee experience. That includes regular assessment and enhancement of our IT career paths as we seek to be the "employer of choice" in every region that we serve. A variety of employee resource groups (such as UPMC Women in Information Technology), technical workshops and other career-focused events are also used to inspire, empower and develop staff.

Across UPMC, we gather frequent survey feedback from our employees to drive positive change and listen to staff in leadership town halls and management meetings. One result of that feedback has been the development of our IT modern workplace program, where employees work from the locations that best fit their needs, including home and several new "hoteling" locations that we've recently created. This focus on flexibility, trust and support began well before the COVID-19 pandemic and has served us well throughout these trying times.

Shakeeb Akhter, senior vice president and CIO of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: To recruit new staff, we have diligently worked with our human resources teams to ensure compensation for new roles is competitive relative to current market conditions (not prior benchmarks). We have added sign-on bonuses, introduced referral bonuses, and we have expanded our geography for recruitment from local to national and are open to remote workers.

We are also highly focused on retaining our current, extremely talented employees. To ensure compensation for existing staff continues to stay in line with the market, we conduct annual compensation equity analyses to ensure compensation for existing staff is competitive. Second, we have largely moved to a remote work environment, which has significantly improved engagement and productivity. Only those teams who are critical to be on-site are on-site. Moving to a remote work environment has developed a culture of trust, while allowing our teams to manage their work and personal lives effectively. This results in increased engagement and productivity.

Lastly, we've begun piloting programs to provide flexible summer hours to even further alleviate the stress our teams feel and provide them additional time to enjoy with their family and friends.

Mark Combs, CIO of Mon Health (Morgantown, W.Va.): I wouldn't call what we're doing innovative these days — rather making the most of remote work. We now have team members located across the country as we have a difficult time filling the talent we need here in West Virginia. Opening our staffing to full-time remote has reaped tremendous benefits as we have individuals with outstanding skill sets who appreciate the flexibility.

We have been able to cut down on almost all the consultants we previously used to augment our staff, resulting in a significant cost savings and building a truly cohesive team of outstanding healthcare IT professionals. Our remote meeting tool, WebEx, helps facilitate team interaction, and the IT leadership team here at Mon Health has learned how to effectively lead our remote teams. I'm very impressed with the staff and the leadership on how they all stay connected with each other.

Paul Grone, vice president and CIO of the Christ Hospital (Cincinnati): We have experienced challenges with both recruiting and retaining talent.

On recruiting, we have two strategies:

  1. We are expanding outside the geography that we typically recruit from and allowing for virtual work.
  2. We are hiring some positions without the certifications we would like, but then training and educating them with an agreement to stay for a certain amount of time.

On retaining talent, we have a few strategies:

  1. We are in a hybrid model that allows for more virtual work than our local competition.
  2. We are concentrating on career pathing and personal development for staff with promotion opportunities.
  3. We are hiring less experienced staff (as stated in recruiting) and using a model where that staff does more routine support, and allows our experienced staff to do more high-level work (less grind, and more satisfaction).

These strategies are working to a moderate degree.

Lonnie Johnson, CIO of KVC Health Systems (Olathe, Kan.): The fact that we work in the social services space makes recruiting and retaining quality staff extra difficult. Most of our funding comes from government contracts and grants. Those funding sources have often come with stipulations about how much you can spend as an agency on administrative-type services as opposed to the actual mission of the social services nonprofit itself.

With that said, we look to recruit directly from technology schools and boot camps. In doing this we stress the mission of our agency with hopes of finding someone willing to support it over working for the highest salary they can get. We also recruit a lot of entry-level workers from our internal business units and train them up. Thus, in both scenarios we present ourselves as an opportunity for people to get some on-the-job training and experience under their belt in the technology space.

Once an individual is part of the team, we offer very flexible hours, remote work privileges and opportunities for the employee to have a say in how products and services get developed within the technology division. As an agency we have expanded our maternity leave policy, committed to an improved diversity, equity and inclusion experience, and made a huge investment in employee engagement. These are some of the ways we have seen improvement in our retention numbers.

Brian Shea, CIO of MedOne Hospital Physicians (Columbus, Ohio): We focus on recruiting the individual, not necessarily the role. It is great to find someone who marks all the technical requirement checkboxes, but it is more important to focus on finding the right individual. This includes soft skills — finding someone who can not only communicate, but communicate effectively. There is a big difference! If you can find the right person, the role aspect is the easy part.

To be able to maintain talented IT is also an art. You need to learn and understand what is important to each individual specifically. On a high level, people want to feel challenged, people want their opinion to be heard and valued, they want an opportunity to grow, and they want to feel they are compensated fairly. If any one of these things is off, it could lead to an individual wondering what another organization or position might be like versus what they have today.

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