Solving the talent equation for health IT

In the ongoing quest for affordable, accessible, accountable healthcare, information technologies are taking center stage. Health IT, or HIT, is the critical connector for improving outcomes and constraining cost in the industry. But, companies are scrambling to fill an IT talent void that could impede progress toward meeting government and consumer expectations, delivering on strategic priorities, and capitalizing on new growth prospects. As a result, more than three-quarters of top healthcare executives anticipate changes in their talent strategies over the next year. (See figure).

Providers, health insurers, drug and device companies, and HIT companies have similar needs that could lead to intense competition for the same limited number of skilled workers. HIT workers that can work across the health sector will have a big advantage in the labor market. Companies that successfully build their IT identity and brand will likely be best positioned to acquire, manage, and retain critically important technology workers.

Balancing technology investments and IT talent needs

Key findings:

  • Healthcare companies are increasingly borrowing technology specialists from other industries.
  • Healthcare companies must bring business and technology closer together to take advantage of the wealth of data being generated to improve health outcomes and constrain rising costs.
  • Seventy-five percent of providers are currently hiring new employees to support their IT priorities. They believe clinical informatics will be the most important skill for achieving their IT priorities.
  • Insurers ranked systems and data integration skills as most important to meeting HIT priorities and 89% think it is very important to have employees trained to integrate and analyze data from various sources.
  • Drug and device companies need a new set of tech skills to support emerging methods of conducting research and the need to prove the value of drugs to public and private purchasers. Thirty-nine percent believe it is important for new hires to be skilled in health economics outcomes research.

Case Studies:

Bringing ‘IT’ all back home: A lesson in cultural change

After ten years of outsourcing its information technology department, leaders at Northern Arizona Healthcare decided to bring IT back in-house and expand the role of IT personnel in helping the hospital implement health reform. The IT department was given a full-time recruiter on loan and six months to do it. “The main reason we decided to in-source was because we believed our vendor was not as innovative as we needed it to be,” said Marilynn Black, chief information officer. “We did not believe we had the right partner to implement healthcare reform.” The technology wasn’t a big factor but the people were. One big advantage was that the hospital hired 75 of the vendor’s employees who were already familiar with the hospital. Anticipating their staffing needs in IT in the next several years and understanding the shortage of HIT skills in the market, they wanted to keep as many people as possible to help meet future business needs.

But the cultural change has been difficult since staff are held to a different level of accountability than they are used to. For example, IT leaders at Northern Arizona reward staff based more on how their customers think they are doing rather than on technical skill alone. Black and her team knew they needed a well orchestrated talent planning process to manage the transition for the staff. They assessed their current capabilities, crafted a vision for high performing teams, and devised a “cultural maturity grid” that illustrates what they look like today and where they need to be. The grid measures seven key areas (trust, integrity, honesty and openness, purpose, credibility, influence and accountability) and a performance scorecard allows them to track cultural maturity on a monthly basis. “We needed to do this to create a strong culture with positivity, better customer service, quality outcomes, and sound financial spending,” said Black. “Now we know what it will take to get there.”

Making IT knowledge a core leadership competency

Often healthcare business executives say they need IT partners that can marry technology with business strategies, anticipate their needs, and sell them on ideas. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska discovered it also needed to look through the lens of the IT executive.

Six years ago the health insurer launched Leading Blue, an initiative aimed at identifying and developing critical skills senior executives believed were necessary to expand the company over the next five to seven years. A glaring discovery early on was that business directors, vice presidents and top executives needed a better understanding of information technology. “We had very competent leadership in IT who had led the department to become a strategic business partner to the rest of the organization,” said Tom Whalen, vice president of human resources and organizational development and the initiative’s leader. “The issue was that sometimes the business did not always understand the complexity and strategic advantages of IT.” Fortunately, the CEO was committed to bridging the knowledge gap. “A key ingredient was that our CEO is a bit of a techie himself,” Whalen said. “He knew that the key to remaining competitive in this industry was data and technology since ‘data analytics’ will probably be more descriptive of our role than ‘insurer’ will be going forward.” Soon the company was collaborating with the University of Nebraska to design custom IT courses for business leaders.

The courses, taught by university professors and some of the insurer’s senior leaders, focused on explaining how designing the IT framework to support the entire company is similar to how one would go about building a city. Twenty-five executives were trained over 18 months. Today familiarity with IT is considered a core criterion for future leaders. “I now have other executives asking me, ‘How do you think that will affect our technology architecture?’ and that’s certainly not something I ever heard before,” said Susan Courtney, vice president and chief information officer. “They understand there are no islands and that everything we do has an impact on IT. My relationship with peers has gotten significantly better.”