Healthcare IT booming but faces talent drought

Talent supply not meeting demand for health IT market fast enough due to lack of professionals with both clinical and IT skills to support initiatives such as electronic medical records, industry players note.

The healthcare IT sector is on a roll but the market's fast demand and growth is hindered by a lack of talent skilled with both clinical and IT know-how, note industry players, who add that clinical analysis, interface management and electronic medical records are some of the most sought-after skills in the industry.

Healthcare IT, in recent years, has grown to become one of the fastest-growing niches in the industry, Chong Yoke Sin, CEO at Integrated Health Information Systems (IHIS), told ZDNet Asia. IHIS is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Singapore's Ministry of Health Holdings (MOHH) and oversees the IT resources of all healthcare institutions under the MOHH, which includes SingHealth and National Healthcare Group.

In an e-mail interview, Chong said advocacy and advances in areas such as electronic health records (EHR) and medical records (EMR), hospital systems, telehealth and telemedicine have all contributed to the uptrend in healthcare IT.

At the same time, a growing elderly population, people with chronic diseases, rising healthcare costs and higher expectations of patient-centric care have also spurred demand for healthcare technology, she added.

Manuel Lowenhaupt, senior executive at Accenture Health, noted that such demand means the industry will continue to see strong growth over the next several years--both in Asia and globally. Last June, the global technology consultancy began implementing the National Electronic Health Records (NEHR) system in Singapore.

Healthcare IT talent crunch
According to Lowenhaupt, who is based in the United States, many mature countries will increase their healthcare IT deployment by double-digit growth rates over the next five years. In Asia-Pacific alone, healthcare IT adoption is estimated to increase by 12 to 14 percent within the next four years. All of this will trigger greater demand for the relevant skillsets, he said.

Yet, this buoyant market is experiencing a drought of skilled, qualified healthcare IT talent. In his e-mail, Lowenhaupt noted that this manpower shortage is widely recognized globally.

One reason for the void is that unlike other industry segments, healthcare IT professionals often require a unique blend of clinical and technology expertise, especially since systems that support clinical decisions also need to be updated to keep up with the advancement of medical knowledge, he explained.

Chong agreed, noting that IHIS is at a stage of development where it is critical to have staff with a combination of clinical and IT skills.

"[Such talent] are difficult to find and the best way is to either get IT people and expose them to clinical operations, or get clinicians and train them in IT, specifically in data management, warehousing, mining and online analytical processing (OLAP) tools," she said.

To address the talent crunch, she noted that IHIS works with Singapore's ICT regulator Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), to identify the skills competency of healthcare IT professionals through a career developing and training framework, called NICF (National Infocomm Competency Framework) program. This initiative aims to groom IT professionals to become clinical IT professionals via exposure to clinical projects and on-the-job training, acquiring skills in health data standardization and terminology, clinical engineering and healthcare solutions architecture.

Clinicians who are interested in a clinical IT can also pursue a conversion course in IT, such as a Masters in information systems or graduate diploma in IT studies, she added.

Wanted: clinical analysis, integration
Chong noted that in Singapore, public healthcare clusters already depend on IT in almost every aspect, so the next level of development is to derive useful alerts, pathways and tap intelligence from IT systems to provide better value for clinicians.

Also, the private healthcare sector should now be included in the electronic health record for "completeness" so a patient can visit any healthcare facility--whether public or private--and still be able to access the same health record. As such, healthcare IT skills in clinical analysis and interface integration are in high demand, she noted.

Clinical analytical skills are also necessary when it comes to designing IT systems for hospital settings, which include analyzing clinical workflows and using IT tools to streamline or speed up processes.

Interface skills such as IHE (integrating healthcare enterprise) know-how are used in the backend to integrate all the various systems operating in a healthcare space, exchanging data with one another. This ensures there is a complete, accurate and up-to-date electronic medical record at every encounter, or at a patient's request, she said.

Lowenhaupt similarly highlighted that skills related to EHR and clinical solutions are currently the most sought-after. Both require specialized IT skills to maintain and manage the immediate and long-term needs of healthcare, he explained.

He also predicted that health analytics will increasingly be in demand in the next three to five years.

The Accenture executive, however, said the demand for IT skills are "directly linked to a [country's] healthcare IT maturity". Compared to Singapore, which requires "more mature solutions", healthcare organizations in India and China are currently in their first phase of healthcare IT adoption and implementation. In these economies, IT professionals or companies would require skills in hospital information management systems (HIMS), electronic patient record systems or telemedicine technologies.

There are also several "fast track" IT certification programs designed for healthcare professionals, Lowenhaupt said, but noted that there is "no substitution for experience" to prepare a person for the job.

Chong added that the best form of getting a healthcare IT staff up-to-speed is to involve them in projects on the ground.

"Healthcare IT has to be learnt by having enough practice and interactions with clinicians, so that systems are effectively designed for the workflows necessary to support the business", she concluded.

Doris Li, a pharmacist working at a local hospital, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview that IT benefits hospital work the most "if the people who make the systems know first-hand what is happening on the frontline and tailor the tech solutions accordingly".


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