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Colleges tackle training for growing health IT field

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Depite the fact that she has worked as an information technology analyst for some 15 years, when Soussan Ahmadi found herself unemployed last year, she realized that she needed to dramatically expand her technological expertise—and no field looked as promising as health information technology.
 
“It is clearly one of the most rapidly growing areas of information technology,” Ahmadi says. “But it is also one of the most complex.”
 
Enrolling in a 6-month certificate program at Bellevue College (Washington) specifically designed to address the increasing workforce need for qualified health information technologists, Ahmadi says she quickly realized that the training went beyond anything she had previously experienced in information technology (IT).
 
“I’ve done this type of work in the financial and insurance industries before, but the health care industry is a different animal. The systems are much more complex and you are dealing with things like patients’ safety, security, and health,” Ahmadi says. “There is no way that anyone could be sufficiently competent for this kind of work without extensive training.”
 
Ahmadi’s decision to attend Bellevue was particularly fortuitous. For the last six years, the college has housed the Life Sciences Informatics Center (LIC) of the National Center for the Biotechnology Workforce and has offered an 18-credit online certificate program to train and transition dislocated IT workers to health care.
 
Today, Bellevue is one of a select group of community colleges receiving funding as a result of the federal Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, which is designed to increase and expand health IT training through 2012.
 
“We already had a program up and running in this field,” notes LSIC Director Patricia Dombrowski. “It was primarily geared for incumbent workers, many of whom ended up redirecting their careers.”
 
But as the recipient of more than $3.3 million in funding through the ambitious Community College Consortia to Educate Health Information Technology Professional Programs—one of the new national programs geared toward training a historic new wave of health IT workers—Bellevue’s scope has become larger. The college now plays a pivotal role as a leader of seven other community colleges in six other states taking part in a national goal of training up to 10,500 health IT workers annually over the next two years.
 
As a “lead awardee,” Bellevue joins the Los Rios Community College District (California), Cuyahoga Community College (CCC) in Ohio, Pitt Community College (North Carolina), and Tidewater Community College (Virginia) in the establishment of a five regional consortia of more than 70 community colleges tasked with developing short-term health IT training certificate programs.
 
“As we are putting all of this together, we are engaging the help of regional and local advisory committees that are composed of stakeholders from the regional extension centers, medical practices and hospital systems—the vendors supporting the implementation of electronic health records,” says Norma Morganti, the executive director of the Midwest Community College Health Information Consortium at CCC.
 
The timing for the initiative could not be better, says Linley White, dean of workforce development and community services at Moraine Valley Community College (Illinois), one of the colleges in the Midwest consortium.
 
“Our goal is to educate 720 students in the next two years,” White says. “At first, I thought that seemed like a lot until I did my own informal research and found out that there are 14,929 doctors' offices in the state of Illinois. Then all of a sudden, that 720 no longer seemed that big to me.”
 
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more than 172,000 health IT jobs in 2008. That number is expected to jump by more than 20 percent over the next decade.
 
The growth in the field is also being spurred by a 5-year plan announced by the Obama administration this month encouraging doctors and hospitals to computerize all of their medical records, and offering up to $27 billion over the next decade in federal incentive payments for the purchase of computerized systems.
 
“The jobs in this field are going to be everywhere, in every part of the country,” says Debbi Clear, vice president of instruction and student services at Virginia Highlands Community College, which—along with four other southwestern Virginia two-year colleges—recently received money to train health IT workers from another federal source, the U.S. Department of Labor’s $125 million Community-Based Job Training Grants Program.
 
“What more and more community colleges will be doing is providing training for both the people who will be starting out fresh in this industry, as well as the incumbent workers—people who are already out there but are not specifically working right now in healthcare information technology,” Clear says. “I think the one thing that will become obvious as this goes along is that there will be a lot of different paths to the job market.”
 
And the jobs are going to be there, says Morganti, noting that the U.S. Health and Human Services Department's Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology recently identified a shortage of more than 51,000 workers in the field.
 
“Our mission is to train the people who will be needed for those jobs,” Morganti says. “That’s obviously a big mission, but it is the kind of thing that community colleges do particularly well.”
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