The State of Health IT Hiring (And 6 Steps to Recruiting the Best Staff)

About one-third of healthcare provider organizations have placed a major IT project on hold due to a lack of qualified IT workers on staff, according to a recent survey of 224 organizations conducted by the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society.

"Across the industry, we're all struggling," says Mitzi Cardenas, CIO of Truman Medical Centers in Kansas City, Mo. "It's getting more difficult to find people that have the skill sets we need."

Talent management software provider HealthcareSource recently compiled hiring data from the 2,000 hospitals that use its software that supports Ms. Cardenas' observation. Results showed that, on average, IT vacancies took about 50 percent longer to fill — 48 days as compared to 31 or 32 days for other positions. "This result has been fairly consistent over the past couple of years," says Michael DiPietro, the company's chief marketing officer.

The difference in time to fill these positions "may not seem like a lot," says Mr. DiPietro, but it can be expensive. Organizations with IT vacancies often need to use temporary staff or contract out IT services, which can be up to 150 percent more expensive, he says.

The problem is workers with the required skills are often difficult to find, with the result being lower standards for hired employees. "Because the process is taking longer than the human resources department expects, they're hiring whoever they can get," says Mr. DiPietro. "And as a result, they're just not getting the quality CIOs want."

Mr. DiPietro believes an improving economy may ultimately be detrimental to health IT hiring. "When the economy is bad, tech people, who can work anywhere, work in healthcare. Why? Hospitals are usually one of the biggest employers in an area, they're always hiring and the jobs are seen as secure," he says.

However, as the economy improves and jobs begin to open up elsewhere, healthcare becomes a less attractive option for technology-focused employees. "Healthcare is often seen as just not as sexy as other fields," says Mr. DiPietro. "The industry has a false reputation for being technologically behind, with not as much cool stuff to work on," he says. With other options available for highly qualified workers, it becomes more difficult to attract top talent, he says.

Below, Mr. DiPietro and Truman Medical Centers' Ms. Cardenas offer six steps to finding and keeping a high-functioning IT staff.

1. Employ tech-friendly recruiting. According to the HIMSS survey, 65 percent of hospitals advertised open IT positions in print newspapers, not helping any stereotypes of hospitals being technologically behind. "IT people will evaluate a hospital based on the technology used there," says Mr. DiPietro, and it's important for hospitals to make a good first impression on potential applicants. "Using technology during the hiring process is critical to getting people in IT to say, 'Yes, this is a place I would consider working,'" he says.

Technology to use includes online reference portals, social media to communicate with applicants and online application tracking, says Mr. DiPietro.

2. Have a dedicated IT recruiter. Larger organizations with plans to make significant additions to their IT team in the upcoming year should consider having a recruiter on the human resources team dedicated to just IT professionals, says Mr. DiPietro. "Used to talking with potential applicants just about clinical issues and healthcare, many hospital recruiters are not as comfortable hiring these types of technical positions," he says. "It's too foreign to them."

Mr. DiPietro says one IT recruiter can usually bring in up to 18 to 20 new employees per year. For hospitals looking to hire in that quantity, "it really helps to have someone who knows where to source, and who can understand the lingo," he says.

3. Ensure a fit. Working in an IT role within a hospital requires more than technological experience. "Working in healthcare is very different for an IT professional than working in the commercial world," says Mr. DiPietro. "It takes a certain type of person to take on this role," he says, due to regulations like HIPAA, a more demanding workday pace and more serious consequences of a malfunction.

Data from HealthcareSource shows most potential IT employees who interview with hospitals are hired. Despite the sourcing struggle, hospitals will ultimately benefit in being more selective and ensuring potential employees have not only the technical background but the personality and drive to work in healthcare, advises Mr. DiPietro. "If they don't fit, they'll quit, and you'll have wasted your time and money," he says.

4. Offer perks. Hospitals need to offer more than a competitive salary to attract top talent. Truman Medical Centers often offers IT staff the ability to work from home and have flexible hours. "It's not difficult these days for IT people to connect from home, and they often like to have the opportunity to do so," says Ms. Cardenas. "It's important to offer people a good work-life balance" to recruit and retain the best staff, she says.

Hospital employment also has the intrinsic perk of being rewarding, which should be emphasized during recruitment. "Recently, we've been attracting people who were working with vendors or consultants and were looking to get off the road and into a hospital where they can see the impact of their work," says Ms. Cardenas. "They wanted to see the end result" and see the difference they're making, she says, an opportunity afforded by hospital employment.

5. Hire interns. In Kansas City, like in many areas across the country, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has helped fund training programs for health IT professionals. Ms. Cardenas said one way to potentially alleviate some staffing challenges would be for healthcare organizations to partner with local educational institutions to being students onboard for internships.

"It's hard to bring on someone full-time who has the education but no practical experience," says Ms. Cardenas. By bringing on student interns, healthcare organizations can benefit from extra hands while investing in the future of health IT professionals in the area by getting the interns "the experience they need to be successful," she says.

6. Look to tech-savvy clinicians. Amidst the shortage of qualified hospital IT workers, hospital clinicians with technology acumen have become a part of Ms. Cardenas' team. "It's becoming increasingly difficult to find people who have the skill sets we need," she says. "As we've continued to get more technologically advanced, some of our clinicians are stepping across the line, and they're really able to perform in these IT roles."

"Having them take on these new responsibilities has been extremely helpful," says Ms. Cardenas. The clinicians know the hospital's workflow and procedures, and most importantly, "they know patient care," she says.

Neither Ms. Cardenas nor Mr. DiPietro see the demand for qualified health IT workers going away anytime soon. "The more we do, the more staff we need," says Ms. Cardenas. "The only way hospitals will be successful in the future is to have the staff to take full advantage of the new systems we all have in place, making them not only work but work for us."

More Articles on Health IT Staff:

3 Tips for Hospitals to Improve Employee Recruitment
9 Statistics on Healthcare Hiring in Second Half of 2013
A Look Into the Pressing Need for Health IT Talent

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