IT Employment

Why you should be working in health IT

Here are three reasons health care IT is a field where you can make a tangible impact - and therefore, a field that's worthy of your career consideration.

Health care IT is a field in need of upgrades. Where many of America's businesses - from retail stores to banks to telecom companies - depend on interoperable network infrastructure and user-friendly interfaces, many doctors' offices, hospitals, clinics and medical laboratories across the U.S. still rely on legacy software and hardware. Some doctors still store patient files on paper, and write prescriptions by (illegible) hand.

In an industry where lives are at stake every day - and where governmental pressure for providers to adopt electronic record-keeping continues to mount - outdated practices like these point to a serious need for bright minds with fresh perspectives. Here are three reasons health care IT is a field where you can make a tangible impact - and therefore, a field that's worthy of your career consideration.

Doctors need answers

Time plays a crucial part in the need for health care IT improvements. In 2009, the U.S. government passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (also known as the Obama administration's "Stimulus Plan"), part of which was the HITECH Act. This Act earmarked a package of $19 billion as incentive cash for doctors, hospitals, clinics and medical laboratories to adopt technologies like electronic health records.

A year later, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 offered additional incentives for doctors who provide online patient tracking and electronic reimbursement. "There is a huge push to store and secure electronic medical records for everyone who's utilizing the health care system," says Dale Lineberry, sourcing program manager at McKesson Health Care Information Technology. "It's not just about government regulations, though, but also about a recognized need to provide better and more efficient care and adapt to new payment models resulting from health reform."

Pressure from patients, insurers and even the government is pushing more and more of America's hospitals, clinics and medical labs to adopt electronic record-keeping. Doing this, in turn, can open the way for more efficient inter-site communication, as well as better prevention of errors like duplicate tests, mismanaged care regimens and inaccurate distribution of prescriptions.

In short, "Health care IT is revolutionizing the way you get medical advice, prevent illness, and learn to live a longer, happier life," says Lauren Burris, associate director of Human Resources at the health care software company Practice Fusion. But as health care IT experts know, the path to this bright future is far from straightforward.

Systems need upgrades

Hospitals stock their operating rooms and laboratories with the most cutting-edge hardware and software available - but when it comes to clerical functions like patient tracking and billing, many hospitals, clinics and medical labs are years, if not decades, behind the times. "[Software] installed in a lot of doctors' offices is legacy software - some of it 40 years old or more," says John Hallock, vice president of corporate communications for the health care software company CareCloud.

What's worse, since much of this management software dates from the pre-Internet age, it isn't designed to communicate with the wide variety of other proprietary tracking and billing systems at other hospitals, labs, and clinics. When a doctor's office or hospital finds that its files are incompatible with the software at a lab or clinic, treatments and tests may end up being duplicated - and the cost of those extra procedures gets passed on to the patient and his or her insurer.

"That doesn't happen in other industries - or when it does, it's considered a nightmare," Hallock says. "Imagine a stockbroker who couldn't get your money back after a trade - you'd be furious."

Problems also abound at pharmacies, many of which still rely on handwritten scrip to match proper prescriptions with patients. While pharmaceutical bar-code scanning is becoming more widespread, health care IT advocates across the country are still working to combat "things like errors due to poor penmanship, which cause thousands of deaths each year," Burris says.

For reasons like these, the health care industry needs software engineers and database administrators who understand the importance of seamless cloud-based communication across multiple platforms and sites - and can bring their expertise to bear on compatibility problems that may be putting lives at risk.

Interfaces need improvements

Improved connectivity and compatibility are back-end problems, but many of these same pieces of management and tracking software also involve outdated front-end interfaces. In order for doctors, nurses and lab technicians to enjoy the benefits of electronic record-keeping, they'll need user interfaces that are clean, fast and intuitive - as well as teams of knowledgeable support staff to walk their health care experts through the initial stages of adoption.

"Doctors aren't afraid of new technology," Hallock says. "But if you offer a doctor an electronic health record-keeping system that's going to slow his office down by 20 percent while he and his nurses learn to use it, that attacks his revenue stream, then he's going to put up some resistance."

In other words, familiarity with legacy systems acts as a barrier to progress - which means that health care software's user interfaces and design conventions need to fast-forward into the user-friendly plug-and-play world of online applications like Gmail and Facebook; a world whose conventions will already be familiar even to non-expert users.

Thus, if you're a front-end designer, a UI coder, or even a technician with a talent for learning interfaces quickly, doctors and patients are likely to benefit from your expertise.

For all these reasons, recruiters at many health care IT companies are actively seeking new talent at the moment. "We're constantly seeing candidates or job searchers wanting to do something meaningful with their lives," Burris says, "and the health care IT field is the place to do it."

If you're one of the brightest minds in your graduating class, you're likely to have your pick of industries, but "if you go to work at, say, Google or Facebook, you'll be just one of hundreds of engineers," Hallock says. "Come work in health care IT, and you can create systems that may help revolutionize an entire industry." Not to mention, he adds, that you just might save some lives along the way.

Ben Thomas writes feature articles about a wide variety of careers for The Riley Guide. If you're looking for help in navigating your career path, check out the Career Research Center at www.rileyguide.com/careers.

37 comments
robertlaw48
robertlaw48

Having worked in Healthcare for the better part of 15 years as an employee at private companies, hospitals and smaller firms catering to supporting physicians I can tell you that the field is lucrative. Problems are abundant with the expectations, compliance and lack of proper funding for IT projects. You need to be a problem solver that is capable of thinking outside of the box to succeed.

phlcidrolin
phlcidrolin

The one comment that comes to my mind while reading the article and the comments is : "Gee, we're not the only one !". In most other fields, if IT fails, money gets lost. In HC, lives get lost (AND money, too, admittedly). Another difference is that a hospital is never as necessary as in the case of a major catastrophe, which makes disaster recovery quite a different challenge. I've had recently an outsourcer saying to me that if the city was wrecked by an earthquake, his staff might have other concerns than business continuity; that outsourcer is obviously more used to hosting banks and insurance companies systems than 1000-beds plus public hospitals'.

robert.a.hatcher
robert.a.hatcher

I rarely or never see any job offers for IT in health care. I'm close to retirement, healthy and I believe I could make a difference.

alun.rosser
alun.rosser

Most of what I infer from reading about NHS IT is a saga of poor vision, defective strategy, incompetent management and outsourced and uncontrolled execution. My perception may be wrong - my sources are public domain news and views. I believe the NHS is potentially the best thing about UK, and was once the envy of the world. I also believe there are many dedicated and competent technical staff working there. However, the scale of recent alleged problems - of which IT/IS problems are only a part - has seriously damaged its reputation. I would like to use my decades of IT/IS experience - and wide programme management experience - to contribute. But, because I have not worked on NHS systems, I am specifically excluded from most of the positions I see advertised. In my experience, if an organisation is suffering the type and scale of problems reported for NHS IT, then many management incumbents - at all levels - need to be replaced The "corporate culture" also needs to be adjusted - and key knowledge and skills built up in-house. It's unlikely they will improve the situation if they continually re-hire and recycle the very people who created the problems - and outsource the technical skills inventory to anonymous third-parties. This is hardly a new observation - and aligns with a saying attributed to Einstein - “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”. Maybe it's time for a radical change. Not just the creation of fashionably buzz-worded new organisation charts and dashboarded process frameworks - and then shuffling the existing players into new locations and job titles. Get some deeper thinking, and broader experience in there - and ensure the knowledge is retained in-house for the future.

Reg Room
Reg Room

The federal government is updating the National Health Information Technology Strategic Plan. The Cornell e-Rulemaking Initiative (CeRI) has partnered with the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) to facilitate public participation in these efforts. CeRI’s participation website (http://planningroom.org/) provides a forum for understanding the goals and strategies for development of e-health records, health information exchanges and consumer health IT products. It makes it easier for a broad range of interested participants – doctors, patients, caregivers, other healthcare providers and developers – to have their say. If you have any suggestions or comments relating to the adoption of e-Health practices in the US healthcare system, join the discussion at http://planningroom.org/

barrynovak5
barrynovak5

I've worked in health care IT in both pharmaceuticals (sales & clinical) and claims processing. It IS rewarding, meaningful work. Whenever the work gets hard, I remind myself that people's lives and livelihood are at risk. The only beef I have is with HIPAA regulations (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). I fully understand the need for it. The consequences are: it's very difficult to do meaningful systems testing or even software bug resolution. I work with health care providers who interact with software I help develop. The HIHs (health information handlers) are held to a higher HIPAA standard than providers. The government (Medicare and Medicaid) IT systems I work with barely provide any test environments. Try doing bug fixes or enhancements and not being able to do a true end-to-end test. Really focuses the programmer's mind!

kingg
kingg

I noticed that it was described that some pharmacies in the USA are still try to decipher hand written scripts. Maybe US IT should take a look at Australia. Of all the doctors I have been to all of them have a computer generated script which they print out and then sign it. They all have computers on their desks where they enter the details of the consultation. Australia is moving towards E-records where the patient carries their records with them and if they go to a different doctor than they normally do then the treating can view the patient's records without the patient trying to remember everything.

extrapalantine
extrapalantine

I'm seeing some commenters saying that health IT is a bubble about to burst, while others are saying it's an under-funded field in need of a technological jump-start. How can both be true?

dcolbert
dcolbert

As noted above, the physicians exert too much control in that industry - and this leads to technical concessions that healthcare IT professionals can be left holding the bag for, including both civil and *criminal* penalties. Healthcare IT is seen as another cost-center by providers - and this means that you're entering into a hostile environment from day one. If you work at a technology driven company where productivity is tangibly increased by IT, you'll have a much more positive relationship with the individuals making decisions. Finding that environment in healthcare is rare. The physicians can be condescending and tend to regard IT professionals as snake-oil salesmen and not legitimate, educated professionals like they consider themselves. It is also an industry that has remained static and resisted technological encroachment longer than just about *any* other industry around. It isn't uncommon to enter a GP where the practice still has *most* of their office dedicated to rows of file cabinets storing physical patient records. Many physicians, especially the older ones, resent EPM and EMR solutions. They're uncomfortable with the technology, it challenges them and makes them feel like they're not in control, and that is like a spark in a coal mine with the ego many providers carry with them. I did not look to replace my last position with another in Healthcare when I exited.

JoeyMorgan2012
JoeyMorgan2012

Between the prevalence of obsolete systems, HITECH and the change to IDC11, the possibilities for improvement in Healthcare IT are limitless. I see projects every day I long to sink my teeth into, but getting funding is another thing entirely. With all of the business pressures on healthcare providers it is a wonder we have so many people practicing good medicine at all. As IT professionals, we should be looking at all the ways we can reduce friction in the providers' systems so they can focus on getting people well.

dsrobinson
dsrobinson

Yes, all are required, but if the system isn't clinical, it isn't funded. Back end decisions are often made on two year old information because the researchers and clinicians see no value in spending on anything that isn't directly related to patient care. And pay is pathetically low, as has been stated already. If you're interested in clinical facing support, you can be on the cutting edge of technology, but the trade off is having to deal with some very large egos, who may or may not know what they're talking about on a technology level, but most certainly do believe they know what they're talking about. And you'll likely be paid at least moderately well. If you're interested in back end/infrastructure support, you'll stay busy (at least at my workplace), and you won't have to deal with the researchers/clinicians, but you certainly won't be on the cutting edge. As for another poster's comment about BYOD being a moot point in healthcare. Not here. ALL the doctors want to use their own devices, and they want to use them as if they were corporate devices...

Organic53
Organic53

I have worked in healthcare IT for 30 years and it is not a good option. First, healthcare IT pays poorly for the starting person. Secondly, healthcare IT is heavily regulated and behind some trends (e.g., the BYOD debate could be inconsequential in a healthcare environment). Third, and this is part of the old Catch-22, it is an environment that really needs experience. While it is true that many current H/R folks are simply looking for buzzwords, some of the candidates they send are totally unprepared (sure, they may have years of .NET experience, but they have no idea what they are doing with it ... but everybody needs 'worker bees'). Plus the end users are some of the least sophisticated and most demanding ever.

MaSysAdmin
MaSysAdmin

I work for a health care software provider and while our customers are demanding, we do have a layer of insulation from the clinicians themselves. Personally, I'd go crazy supporting the clinicians.

Pete6677
Pete6677

Healthcare IT demands a LOT and pays very little - for work that is usually unsatisfying. No thank you.

JLogan3o13
JLogan3o13

I moved from the insurance industry to healthcare IT in 2011, and while I am grateful for the experience, I would not make the same choice if I had it to do over again. The money is much better with all the initiatives going on as cbslc pointed out (my salary jumped $23k in 12 months). But the very first thing that was explained to me was "We treat every doctor as a VP" - basically, if a doctor is upset with the hospital, there is the fear he will take his business (both his own employees and his patients) to another hospital. The amount of money that can potentially be lost is huge. So you end up with doctors who refuse to listen, don't have time to troubleshoot when they have issues, and just want you to "fix the damn thing now". It takes people of special patience to work in this industry. Personally, I decided I the headaches outweighed the rewards, and am moving back to IT in a more sane industry.

cbslc
cbslc

Healthcare IT is a bubble set to burst. It has been spured on by incentive programs (EHR, PQRS...). That incentive money is drying up and will turn to small penalties, that are less than the cost of maintenance of an EHR. So if you want in Healthcare IT, join now. Just like Y2K, the bubble will burst. Others commented on how bad it is to work with Dr's. At our hospital the Dr's are great. IT personnel are the real problem. Our IT does not allow access to data warehouse data. Does not allow people to build their own BI reports... Add to that the legacy nature of MUMPS, the 24X7 support and the pressure to completely customize a vendor product - yuck! By the way I've been in healthcare IT for 14 years now. I am hoping next year will be my last year here, or maybe the problems are just at the big hospital I work for.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I worked three years in the computer room in a military hospital. It's fortunate my job didn't require me to leave the computer room very often, as I felt personally uncomfortable outside it. I didn't interact with patients, but I would actively avoid chance encounters. I'm not generally interested in people and especially not in their private lives. I felt like even making eye contact was intruding on an unwanted experience I assumed they would rather keep as private as possible. The ironic thing is that I don't have any privacy issues of my own when I'm a patient. It's probably another aspect of my poor interpersonal skills. Regardless of the reason, it doesn't strike me as the right environment for someone as unconcerned with the customers as I am.

wallingk
wallingk

Since my Health System went through EMR (Electronic Medical Records) back in 2007 it has pretty much been non stop. If there isn't something new coming in there is something that needs to be updated or replaced. most all of the comments I read are pretty much on the mark, it's not like any other IT you've worked. You are a part of patient care as much as anyone of the Doctors or Nurses; they can not do their jobs effectively anymore if we aren't doing ours effectively, Down times are a major happening everything effects everything else and has to be scheduled down to the minute, you are on call even when you are not on call - if your co-workers need a hand or if you are closer you get there and take care of business. It's probably the toughest, at times, job I've ever been in but it is also the most gratifing especially after you see all your hardwork in motion.

eldergabriel
eldergabriel

The mentions of handwritten scrip and penmanship here in this article reminded me of something funny, but somewhat typically true. There is a classic scene in the movie "The Fugitive", where Harrison Ford's character, who is also doctor, is in a hospital. In the process of avoiding the U.S. Marshals, on his way out, he comes across a child patient where an incorrect decision was made, noted on the kid's chart. He instructs the nurse to make a change, thereby correcting a medical mistake and potentially saving the child's life. She informs him that she can't do what he asks without an authorizing signature. He confidently and hastily scribbles an illegible signature, as just about any other doctor would do. She glances at it, at him, and then carries on and does as he instructed.

Nt0009
Nt0009

While it does not get as much press as some of the other fields that people are talking about, it has some wide open opportunities. Curious about any comments/information on the CompTia Health IT technician cert. It's a good mix between IT and healthcare. I'm currently taking this class, and there is not much out there as far as information. I'd appreciate any thoughts, etc on it.

earlehartshorn
earlehartshorn

I have worked in healthcare IT for about 15 years now. There is always something new going on. The real IT challenge is indeed the legacy data. Laws often require data to be kept forever, but the systems they live on won't last that long. So you always have to keep your eyes on how to get the old data into the new systems; which can sometimes be a major challenge, especially as you move from paper to digital. Laws also require restrictive access, and balancing the accessibility of the data can also be challenging. A doctor or nurse may need access RIGHT NOW! to save a life, but unauthorized people are NEVER allowed to access the data. Quite the challenge, and we are not always successful. The people challenge can be the doctors and nurses, but they are wonderful people to work with. If I treat them as equally intelligent but specialized in their field and expect the same from them I find that we get along great. And I try to learn as much as I can from them and assist them to learn from me and it gets even better. Many of the best doctors and nurses are polymaths and love to learn all they can about as many things as they can. Medicine is such a complex field that it is very fulfilling, but everyone likes a change of focus occasionally. And yes, you don't have a life when you work in Healthcare IT. As doctors and nurses may be called on at any moment to save a life, the IT people may be called upon at any moment to assist in saving that same life. It can be very fulfilling to know that you are helping save lives in a tangible way. On the flip side, we all make mistakes and sometimes you have to step back and ask yourself if you could have done something different or better, but you need to focus on lessons learned so it gets done correctly the next time, and move on. When you work in Healthcare IT, you are not just a computer person anymore, you are part of the healthcare team. Not everyone can take the pressure, I've seen a lot of people come and go, but for those of us who enjoy the work it is wonderful.

mdbizzarri
mdbizzarri

I think the the term legacy, especially in healthcare, has no business in IT. Add to that people that have no idea of the complexity of inter-related systems of IT who make decisions on what gets done, and I am out! In my experience, Dr's and lawyers make the worst people to work for as they can be financially tight, and quite controlling. If the Dr's can not keep their systems up to date, why would I walk into an environment to support that? It says a lot about a Dr's ability to trust others, or lack there of. I think the only way I would consider this industry is if I was out of a job.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

I work in a hospital Quality department. Mostly because they wanted control over their personal data miner and statistician rather than having to go hat in hand to I.S. every time they needed something. HL-7 standards helped make data transfer easier between various applications and databases for insurance agencies and the hospitals; but really didn't go far enough. And HL-7 is a bandaid on a gushing wound. What I haven't seen is a healthcare appplication database system designed from the ground up to handle electronic patient clinical records, financial and insurance data, inpatient/outpatient/ and external doctors office two-way data transfers, as well as the plethora of required reports for in-house, and government use. Every application and database currently available is specific task designed and interoperability is cobbled together from spit and baling wire.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Though even with the GP's there are restricted to 2 main Programs Medical Spectrum and Pratics, both still needs lots of work and the new Federal Initiative of E Health leaves lots to be desired. Col

cbslc
cbslc

The bubble is from the incentive programs. The need for jump start comes from the crappy quality of EHR products. For example, our hospital system will have spent over $20 mill on a large EHR. The EHR is based in MUMPS/Cache. This is a proprietary "database" that is difficult to get data out of. So we have tons of interfaces and KB SQL(requiring a separate product) to send data here and there to other proprietary systems or to an actual operational data store. So $20 mill spent and many big non-interoperable systems getting in place. That $20 mill was borrowed with the idea that the incentive money would pay it back over then next 5 years. However, the measures that need to be met to get the full incentives get harder every year. We are finding out that even if our EHR can do it (which is a challenge, updates every week...), the physicians do not want to spend the extra hours doing data entry. So the end result is a very low measure compliance and now we are not expecting to get the full incentive amounts. Our projections are that we will be several million short. So to summarize: incentives created bubble, big EHR's rely on old/proprietary systems, can't meet needed measures for full incentives and ultimately short of full funding to pay off EHR implementation loan. Ultimately, we jump started a 1972 computer system.

I_Borg
I_Borg

HIT for over 30 years?! sounds like you never collected unemployment. That is the beauty of HIT, you are never out of work, even during a poor economy! Obama's health plan ensures that we HIT's will be employed for the next 20 years. Even if it is repealed the other party has a plan of their own thus ensuriing our job security...

tavent
tavent

nobody said you had to stay there for your entire life, but you have to start someplace. starting at the top is a fairy tale and it won't take the business world long to relieve you of any of those fantasies. I basically got my feet wet in the biz by working in medical research while I was in college, and it DID pay off. but just like anywhere else you have to pay your dues, and take crap from some arrogant doctors sometimes. on the other hand there are some doctors that you would want to keep as friends and a lot of nurses who have less in the ego department and more talent than the doctors

I_Borg
I_Borg

Where have you been working?! The pay for HIT Professionals is through the roof. 6 figure incomes are the average for anyone with 10 years of experience. If you aren't getting paid then that is your fault. Just look at Monster and Dice if you don't believe me.

mckinnej
mckinnej

Another bubble to consider is how the healthcare industry is expanding to accommodate the baby boomers. In a decade or two it will need to shrink because most of us old folks will have died off. Granted, that's a long time away, but as many folks know, changing careers isn't an easy thing to do, especially if you're already middle-aged or more. 20-something techs entering healthcare now could find themselves being 40-something unemployed down the road. That is not a good situation in a culture so obsessed with youth the way ours has been.

Slayer_
Slayer_

But I just hate people.

edmking
edmking

I have heard ASHIM has learning and certification. Check them out.

BryanReyn
BryanReyn

Look at Epic - they do not have everything covered (yet), but do seem to have an integrated system. Ambulatory, inpatient, sched, billing, homecare is new but working.

GSG
GSG

I build HL7 interfaces between systems. The only thing standard about HL7 is how you spell it, and even that is iffy since I see about half the vendors call it H7L. If you don't want to put up with being available 24 x 7, even on vacation, getting yelled at because a physician doesn't understand why you can't reprogram a vendor's custom code to fit what he wants to do (even though it's against about 50 federal and state regulations), live and breathe HIPAA and all sorts of other compliance regulations, and in general being completely unappreciated, then Healthcare IT is not for you. All kidding aside, working in IT in a hospital is not like working in IT in other organizations. You need to learn and understand a lot of clinical information, depending on what you do. Yes, we have nurse informaticists for a lot of our clinical systems, but I'm not clinical, and I had to learn a whole lot about how the cancer center works when no one else was available to install and manage that system. It's also not easy to schedule down time. We don't have a time when we can shut down without affecting someone, so you have to develop elaborate downtime procedures and do your best to minimize downtimes.

dsrobinson
dsrobinson

on whether you're clinical facing or not. Clinical facing jobs are paid well.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Geez, the guy is expressing an honest reason why he should avoid the field. What's the problem?

MaSysAdmin
MaSysAdmin

If you have a year or two of IT experience, just apply. My background is 10 years of network experience and I got in to a software developer who needed someone who could do troubleshooting for how their software connects to 3rd party systems. Now I'm working on database administration and studying for my first MS SQL exam. I work with other people who have business administration backgrounds but they work with hospitals on how we can customize our front-end to work the way their clinical staff needs.