Among the waves of students heading to college this fall are a number of students and information technology workers who have signed up for new courses and certificates that will train them to become health IT professionals working for healthcare providers.
They are the vanguard of a campaign to begin to turn around the shortfall of 50,000 skilled IT workers that the Office of the National Coordinator has estimated is needed to assist healthcare providers over the hurdles of adopting and maintaining electronic health records.
To take advantage of the demand, community colleges and universities have inaugurated non-degree programs designed to prepare students to be practice workflow redesign specialists, clinician consultants, software support and other IT roles considered most critical to support physicians and small hospitals.
Getting health IT workers into physician offices is one of the many moving parts of the overall effort to help physicians and hospitals to meet meaningful use requirements. In underlining its importance, ONC allocated $84 million for education and training programs from funds provided by the HITECH Act.
Five consortia, including 84 community colleges across the country, are offering courses aimed at training 10,500 people annually in the six career roles, according to Chitra Mohla, director of ONC's community college workforce program.
"Just in time for the coming school year, the curricula are developed, and community colleges across the country are staffing up and recruiting students for the first wave of classes," she said, adding that the health IT classes will start by Sept. 30 in most of the colleges.
Some of the community colleges have already reported a demand for the courses. "Even without marketing, they have students calling in and knocking on their doors," Mohla said. "We don't expect problem in attracting students."
The slow economy may be contributing. For instance, California has a lot of unemployed nurses and they're looking for opportunities, she said.
Among community schools, Pitt Community College in Greenville, N.C., just launched its online "health IT workforce training program." Ashley Deaver, a Pitt student support specialist, said she anticipates "a lot of interested and qualified students" for the new course.
The program, which will be geared to people with either medical or IT expertise, will be flexible enough to provide each trainee with skills that they do not already possess. "The training will provide these individuals the knowledge, skills, and aptitudes necessary to implement an electronic health records system," Deaver said.
Among the certificates Pitt offers is an IT implementation support specialist certification to perform technical services above and beyond what a vendor supplies when the provider sets up an EHR. The specialist is trained to make sure that the software functions properly and is configured to meet the needs of the provider's redesigned practice workflow.
Two other colleges in the region " Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory, N.C. and Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C. " are also offering the health IT program.
While community colleges are becoming active in health IT training, universities are also getting into the game. The University of Texas at Austin, for instance, graduated its first class of 54 students during the summer in its health IT certificate for recent university graduates. The school received $2.7 million from ONC as part of the Professional University Resources and Education for Health IT project.
Its first graduates were "really impressive," said Leanne Field, the health IT program director. "They are entering a field that is rapidly growing will only continue to gain importance as we move toward electronic health records across the country."
The summer certificate program ran nine weeks during which students study and train for project management, different models of medical practices and skills development in the use of various electronic health record systems. Graduates are certified as a health information manager and exchange specialist.
As part of the program, students spend two weeks working with Texas e-health organizations. This summer, students worked at the Gulf Coast Regional Extension Center in Houston with a local non-profit clinic. In one day, the students created a new database system for the clinic to add patients and track their health over time, Field said.
The university offers four programs in health IT: the summer health IT program; a health IT privacy and security certificate for computer science students; a public health informatics certificate for public health students; and a health IT sub-specialist certificate for graduate students.