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stake every day - and where governmental pressure for providers to adopt electronic record-keeping continues to mount - outdated practices like these point to a serious need for bright minds with fresh perspectives.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.