Healthcare Staffing Shortage: Reasons for it

For more than two years, healthcare has faced an abundance of spectators asking the same question: Are we headed into a health IT staffing shortage?

The reasoning for the questions is simple, of course. As hospitals and providers move forward with a variety of efforts including meaningful use, ACA and ICD-10, the latter of the three is now receiving a great deal more attention than it once did, even with the recent delay of implementation until 2015. However, ICD-10 as an effort likely receives a great deal of talk because of its complexity and the skills required to make the change, including learning, managing and processing new codes.

Perhaps the delay is a good thing, giving the industry more time to fill any potential staffing holes as existing and new resources get trained or become skilled in the necessary traits to drive the initiative. On the flip side of the coin, perhaps it’s still too early to tell if there is a shortage of staff to move the initiative forward or if more folks will be needed, as has been predicted.

Nevertheless, according to the U.S. Labor Department, nearly 38,000 more health information technician jobs will be created throughout the current decade, from 2010 through 2020, a 21 percent increase. Health information technicians include coders, transcriptionists and clinical documentation improvement practitioners.

Even with the ICD-10 delay, the at-present unanswerable question is whether there’s going to be enough resources to address future need. According to some, providers are already seeking ways to outsource their coding needs. For all organizations, no matter their size, a lack of resources and skill to handle the transition will likely result in a loss of revenue simply because the codes associated with the claims impact billing. And according to Modern Healthcare, “The most experienced coders are being charged with training newer staff members. But many veteran coders appear unwilling to relearn their jobs; instead they are choosing to retire. That leaves coding in the hands of a younger workforce, and many hospitals aren’t comfortable with that situation.”

HHS even recently projected that these changes might cost up to $2.7 billion industrywide over the next 12 years or so — including the purchases of new IT systems to manage ICD-10, and staff training. Because of this influx and focus, talent – especially IT-related talent – is in great demand. Therefore, as organizations implement new systems and processes, they’ve got to manage those processes and growing amounts of data, platforms and regulation, which create even more challenges for organizations.

But the talent is hard to find. So — why the challenge?

According to For the Record, “The biggest issue may be that healthcare is atypical from most other industries.” Unique expectations are coupled with the fact that hospitals are not typical environments where everything shuts down at five o’clock and systems still have to be kept up to date. It’s a busy schedule no matter the time of day or the day of the week and that can be a challenge for potential employees.

Another reason may be the pay of in-house staff. Again citing For the Record, according to a 2012 survey by research firm Towers Watson, salaries for health IT professionals lagged behind those of other professionals and administrators in a hospital setting. Lower wages found in healthcare, especially in health IT, are a barrier to entry for many folks seeking employment. If they can get more money and work less, they’re likely going to take a different job unless they’re passionate about working in healthcare.

Another challenge facing healthcare employers is that there’s simply too few people with the skills needed to marry technological savvy with business strategy for the environment, suggests the results of a recent study by PwC. The void may be being filled in the short and long term by consultants, For the Record reports. “Hospitals pressed for time to meet various deadlines may look outside their doors to help get systems and processes built and implemented.”

Hospitals are relying on a hiring strategy that includes bringing in experienced consultants, as well as looking at staff augmentation to supplement their IT teams. Hospital leaders have long known that these third-party sources are crucial for implementation and for support services that are able to provide elbow-to-elbow support to guide in-house staff through difficult and time-consuming transitions. Outsourced talent allows healthcare IT leaders to focus on fixing their pain points at a granular level from workflow bottlenecks to concern for patient safety.

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