How the Region A Community College Consortia Is Training Health IT Professionals

Patricia Dombrowski | June 7, 2012

In late 2009, educators in the 10 northwestern states banded together to answer the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology’s (ONC) call for the nation’s community colleges to help train the health IT professionals needed to help providers and hospitals make the transition to adopting and meaningfully using certified electronic health records (EHRs).

About Our Community College Consortium

The Region A Community College Consortium was formed to take on the challenge of training 2,400 students in ONC-developed courses in less than two years.

Led by Bellevue College, the Region A’s central organizing principals are:

  • Support the student;
  • Listen to the employer, and
  • Keep curriculum current and accessible.

Our first task was  to take the temperature of local health IT staffing needs to ensure courses offered were a match for local workforce needs. Once reconnaissance was complete, we enlisted industry experts to augment existing faculty and welcomed health IT students to inaugural classes. By April 2011, students in states from the Dakotas to Alaska were employed in health IT, or well on their way to that goal. In the process, we saw several regional trends emerge.

Dislocated Information Technology Professionals

Many people with solid IT skills and experience find transitioning from another industry into health care employment difficult. A six-month health IT training program, concentrating on unique aspects of this sector, creates a welcome bridge. The business of health care—how  data moves across a major medical center, medical terminology, patient privacy and security, and technology at the point of care—are all new and important concepts for a learner coming from a background in aerospace, banking, or telecom. The ONC workforce curriculum has equipped our region’s students with the information to align their skills with workforce needs in health care. Member colleges of the Community College Consortia have regionalized the coursework and worked to connect learners with employers for real-life experience during the health IT program. Even students who mastered coursework quickly could still find reframing professional and personal goals a hurdle. With ONC support, employment specialists worked with our health IT students to help prepare them for the transition. Business social media connections, practice interviews, and employer/student events have all helped with negotiating the cultural divide between those with backgrounds in other industries and health care.

Nursing and Allied Health Students

Many community colleges are experiencing record enrollments at a time of reduced state funding. Cash- strapped administrators are sometimes forced to cut budgets that keep programs current with industry. Health care employers in Region A and across the country are raising concerns that nursing and allied health graduates lack experience with EHRs and the understanding they need for rapid assimilation to clinical settings after graduation. Bellevue College developed modular elements for infusion into nursing programs, and piloted their use at colleges in three states. The online training was convenient for busy faculty and enhanced with in-person sessions on campus for practice and discussion.

Incumbent Workers

A number of people who already work in the health care and IT fields are eager to understand the impact and value of EHRs where they work, meaningful use, and health information exchange. Region A trained many incumbent workers including clinicians, IT staff, medical record managers, and coders at hospitals. Front-office staff and office managers in community and migrant clinics welcomed a chance to explore these pressing issues with knowledgeable instructors and peers online. Physicians and their support staff took classes together online to help plan for and adopt EHR systems.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) collaborated with Bellevue College to offer an eight week “Health Informatics 101” online class to anyone employed in a VA medical center. A surprising 1,000 registrations were received in the first 5 hours, and another 1,000 waitlisted right behind them! These VA students took the class on their own time, without pay—a testament to their commitment to serving veterans, and an indicator of how keenly aware people already in the field are of the gaming-changing impact of the national transition to health IT. A full range of staff members from VA medical centers across the country enrolled—from reception to physicians; the “need to know” enlivened and unified online work groups and discussion boards.

Student surveys were overwhelmingly positive; a common thread was appreciation for the opportunity to focus on information needed on a daily basis in a fast-moving, data-driven environment. One student’s observation is typical of many received, “I work in an informatics role, but have never had an integrated foundation. I love this information!”

Next Steps for the Community College Consortia

The 23 colleges in Region A are as diverse as the physical terrain of our territory. Health IT programs are evolving in different ways across the Consortium. As staffing needs increase, many community colleges are expanding their health IT course offerings. A serious limitation to expansion is the need for faculty development. IT instructors require exposure to how technology is deployed in hospitals, clinics, and physician practices, and an understanding of the political and economic factors redefining the sector. Nursing and allied health faculty are looking for avenues to update their understanding of current systems and issues their students will confront as they enter the workplace. Access to much-needed instruction in rural and underserved areas is also on at the top of our agenda, as is expanding work in the service of veterans. A newly established state Health IT Industry  Education Council in Washington is hardwiring the connection between employers and educators to create efficiencies for students and taxpayers. There is much to be done in the 10 northwestern states and across the country to ensure health care providers have the skilled health IT professionals they need, but we’re well on our way!

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