Tech worker shortage creates problems for area health care providers

The shortage of doctors and nurses gets a lot of attention these days.

But another acute health care shortage is flying under the radar: The industry has too few information technology workers. And though IT employees don’t check your vital stats, prescribe medication or handle surgeries, they’ll play a huge role in the industry under new rules in the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

That’s because Obamacare requires health providers to switch from paper to electronic records by 2018. The federal government is offering incentives to providers who make the change faster, and penalizing those who lag behind. The 2009 federal stimulus allotted $19 billion to help medical practices digitize patient records, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is doling out as much as $63,750 over five years to each practice or hospital that upgrades to electronic records. What’s more, providers who don’t make big strides toward electronic records could see cuts in Medicare reimbursements of 1 percent to 3 percent starting in 2015.

That looming deadline worries some industry observers. Health care IT workers are a rare commodity these days, and that means some providers are lagging in the electronic records revolution.

“Separately, health care hiring and IT hiring are in high demand,” said Bill Werksman, managing partner at Resource Partners, a Las Vegas staffing agency. “When you combine those two tough areas, it makes it even more challenging to find people and recruit them.”

LAS VEGAS LOW ON MEDICAL TECHNICIANS

No one tracks local health care IT figures, but national numbers show hard times for employers. A March report from PricewaterhouseCoopers found that 67 percent of hospitals and health systems said they have IT shortages, and 59 percent said those shortages will limit their ability to meet federal electronic records deadlines.

It’s a safe bet the problem is just as widespread here, if not more so. The Las Vegas economy runs more on the service sector rather than high-tech fields, so it doesn’t have the concentration of tech-oriented businesses that would create a large IT labor pool, Werksman said.

“Our talent pool in this particular specialty is very shallow as it stands, and companies will continue to see shortages of those particular profiles,” he said.

Without a built-in tech workforce, some local providers are in real trouble. No real estate market is doing well enough yet for recruits to sell their existing place and move here, Werksman noted.

Worse still, the city’s big, brand-name corporations — Wynn, Caesars, Las Vegas Sands — often have first dibs on IT workers here, simply because they’re the economy’s best-known players, said Daniel Cho, Las Vegas branch manager for staffing firm Robert Half International.

Recruiters see the resulting shortage in their staffing and pay numbers. An IT worker who puts himself on the market will quickly have as many as five offers, up from one or two a couple of years ago, Werksman said. If he’s willing to relocate, he could have as many as 10 prospects.

And that means providers have to pay more for the people they do find. For lower-level technicians, hourly wages have jumped from around $14 or $15 to $18 in the last year or so, Cho said. Higher-level database administrator salaries have gone from about $75,000 to $95,000 per year.

But not all subfields feel the shortage equally. Three areas in particular suffer most, Cho said.

First, given their emphasis on complying with privacy laws, providers can’t find enough security network engineers to strengthen internal and external buffers against bad guys who want to hack patient information.

It’s also hard to find people with skills in picture archiving and communications systems, or managing the huge digital files of imaging tests such as MRIs.

“A lot of health care providers are just throwing their hands up and saying, ‘Give me a good person with an all-around good skills set, and we’ll have to train them,’ ” Cho said.

Finally, for smaller practices digitizing paper records for the first time, “it’s like learning how to walk,” Cho said. “It’s a whole new thing for them, and a lot of them are finding it’s very difficult to find somebody with the specific skills set to do that.”

ST. ROSE SUCCESSFUL IN FINDING WORKERS

In the hunt for IT workers, some providers might want to take a cue from St. Rose Dominican Hospitals, a three-hospital chain in Henderson and southwest Las Vegas.

Deanna Wise, executive vice president and chief information officer for St. Rose parent Dignity Health, said the company hasn’t had many challenges finding IT workers, with one exception. It’s hard for most hospitals these days to compete with retail drugstore chains for pharmacists to help with digitizing records, she said.

Otherwise, it’s been relatively easy to find the right people, and Dignity Health doesn’t expect any delays in meeting federal electronic records regulations. That’s partly because the company was moving to electronic health records before the government mandate, and partly because Wise keeps watch on department culture.

An “enthusiastic” environment that reminds IT workers how important they are to patient care encourages them to recommend Dignity Health as an employer to associates with other companies, Wise said.

Plus, Dignity Health has a work-from-home policy wherever possible, so that tech workers can strike a better work-life balance.

“I have a strong belief that you don’t need the time-clock, butt-in-the-seat thing. We strive for certain outcomes, and everyone understands the outcomes that they have to achieve. If you can do that with a work-from-home culture, it’s one way to get very senior-level people who used to travel all the time consulting, but who want to get off the road a little bit,” Wise said.

For doctors in smaller practices looking to escape the electronic records rush, it helps to align with a larger practice or hospital system already well on the way to meeting standards.

But there are other options, Cho said.

Providers and companies that need an ongoing stream of IT workers should join industry groups such as Technology Business Alliance of Nevada or the Association of Information Technology Professionals. Robert Half International is stepping up its presence in trade groups to track down prospects.

Cho also said he sees health care companies participating in job fairs, but he added that’s not the best way to find IT specialists.

“Highly skilled candidates already have jobs. There’s no reason, if you already have a job, to go out and look for another one,” he said.

Instead, it may take a headhunter to find the right people.

“It’s our job to convince a worker to look at an opportunity they wouldn’t ordinarily look at,” he said.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512. Follow @J_Robison1 on Twitter.

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