August 1, 2011 | last updated May 31, 2012 8:07 pm

Medical IT program finds jobs scarce at entry level

Capital Community College graduated its first class of students in a new federally funded health information technology program earlier this summer, but the job market hasn't been as receptive as some would have thought.

Despite a significant increase in the use of electronic medical records by health care institutions across the state, only four of the 33 graduates have found a job. While some students were already employed, about half were not.

So what's the disconnect? It's not entirely clear.

Jo-Anne Leventhal, coordinator of the program, said she thinks because the field is so new a lot of health care providers — hospitals, rehab centers, or medical practices — don't know they need this kind of help.

"I think the hiring has been slower than we would like, but we are anticipating it will pick up greatly," Leventhal said.

But area hospital officials say they have the job openings. Finding experienced candidates to fill them, however, hasn't been easy.

"We've found it very difficult filling jobs related to electronic medical records," said Jess Kupec, president and CEO of St. Francis HealthCare Partners, which serves 650 physicians in more than 200 medical practices in Connecticut.

The slow hiring also came as a surprise to Todd Park, chief technology officer of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who was in Hartford recently meeting with more than a dozen companies, including many from the health care industry.

"There has been a lot of job growth in the health IT industry," Park said. "But these programs are having a tougher time connecting graduates to actual jobs. I'm sure it's solvable. I know it's not a demand side issue."

The Capital Community College program provides short-term training to IT professionals who are unemployed as well as health care professionals such as nurses and medical assistants, who want a continuing education in IT for career advancement.

The goal is to give students skills for jobs as data, project, or program managers, implementation specialists, and practice consultants, among other possibilities.

The HIT program is being funded by a grant through U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Capital Community College is one of 23 colleges from around the country involved in the grant, and the only one in Connecticut.

Park said the program aims to begin training a workforce for part of the health care industry that is bound to take off in the coming years, especially as the federal government begins to provide incentives for providers that adopt health IT and disincentives for those that don't.

Nationally, about 30 percent of primary care doctors are using electronic health records, up from 20 percent a year earlier, Park said.

And 65 percent of hospitals and a third of office-based physicians are going to apply for "meaningful use" of electronic health records technology, which would certify them for incentive payments from Medicare and Medicaid, Park said.

In Connecticut the numbers are similar.

John Brady, chief financial officer and vice president of business planning at the Connecticut Hospital Association, said all of Connecticut's 29 nonprofit hospitals have committed to early adoption of federal guidelines for digitizing patient health records ahead of the 2015 "meaningful use" deadline.

Brady said it's a huge multi-million project for hospitals, which are seeing a shortage in the available workforce, particularly from vendors who provide the software, which is creating constraints on how fast hospitals can adopt the technology.

"All hospitals across the country are doing these upgrades right now so there is a hitch in the availability of the vendors to get to every facility," Brady said

Even so, he said they "absolutely expect to see more IT jobs in hospitals as well as at firms and companies that support the hospitals."

"In general, hospitals are currently not staffed to handle it," Brady said.

Kimberly A. Kalajainen, vice president and chief information officer at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London, said the hospital too has had trouble filling health IT jobs. The hospital is in the middle of a $22 million electronic medical record implementation project, and has added about 20 staff because of it.

But it's taken the hospital a long time to fill those positions, and they were forced to hire a recruitment firm to hunt down talent, which they've found as far away as the west and south coasts.

One of the issues, Kalajainen said, is the need to find experienced candidates. With hospitals facing pressure to implement electronic medical records by 2015, there is little time to train fresh graduates. "There is a steep learning curve," Kalajainen said. "We are not looking for entry level positions."

Kupec, of Saint Francis HealthCare Partners, said EMR-related jobs require a different subset of skills than traditional IT positions, mainly the need to understand the business practices of the health care industry.

"The best candidates are the ones who have worked in a physicians practice, understand the workflow and have a background in IT," Kupec said.

The Capital Community College program does provide an IT track as well as clinical concentration, Leventhal said. Students can learn health care work flow processes and lingo, as well as how to install and maintain health IT systems, and analyze and interpret the data.

There are 20 courses offered within the curriculum and students have to complete 180 hours of course work, or 11 to 15 courses depending on what track they choose. Leventhal said students have ranged in age from the low 20s to mid 60s, and people with two-year degrees to PHDs.

Kupec said he has not interviewed anyone from the Capital Community College program. But he is bullish on the future outlook of health IT-related jobs. "It's a growing field, and it's a field we need more resources in," Kupec said.

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