How One Community College Is Providing Health IT Training to the Nation’s Workers

Sunny Ainley | May 25, 2012

When Normandale Community College was first selected by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) as a Community College Consortium Program grantee—one of the nation’s critical hubs for health information technology (health IT) training—we were honored and excited to help develop the workforce of today and of the future that would help providers and hospitals all over the  country make the transition to using electronic health records (EHRs) and health IT to improve the health of patients. We rolled up our sleeves, dug in, and started the hard work that needed to be done!

But as prepared as we were to provide health IT training, we never predicted the tsunami of highly educated, talented, and unemployed job seekers that would appear at our doorstep. As we accepted our first 300-plus health IT students, we quickly realized that more than 47 percent of these students were fully unemployed, some for over a year or more. Even more surprising was the age and caliber of talent, education, and experience with which these students were coming to us: average age of 45 with 6 years of health care or 8 or more years of IT experience, predominantly bachelor’s level education or higher, and a wealth of wisdom. We saw that many students enrolled in the health IT training were at the beginning of the often tricky process of bridging to a new career, having possibly spent the last 10-15 years in a stable, niche job, believing that that job would persist forever. We, of course, know that longer-term unemployment does not necessarily reflect the level of capability or talent of an individual. It can, however, bear down heavily on an individual’s self-esteem, confidence, as well as emotional and financial health. Our team at Normandale soon realized that not only were health IT students looking for a meaningful training program, they were hoping for an opportunity to change and uplift their lives.

In training and development, we understand that training, including health IT training, is only as good as the end-results. For us, we knew that we had to provide “high-touch,” meaningful training and support to meet the goals of our students, our industry partners (the employers), and our health care community. And that meant more than a training program. Normally in an online learning environment, the human interaction and support are nominal in a self-paced learning methodology. We, on the other hand, worked very hard to stay in constant touch with our health IT students, providing them emotional support and encouragement in addition to high-quality health IT training.

The result is a highly effective career development program called the “CareerHITrac” program. This program was developed as an integrated, wrap-service to our health IT students, employed or not, to bridge the training to each student’s goals—to be that career advancement, employment, or the betterment of his/her current work role. As a direct result of both the health IT training program and the career development component, the unemployment rate of our first cohort of students dropped from 47 percent down to 17 percent, and our graduates are working in a wide variety of roles within the health IT community.

The CareerHITrac program includes four training sessions that facilitate an internal and external investigation of individual passions, talents, gaps, realities, and industry and environmental research. It provides the tools and resources to help guide students to discover who they are, where they fit in the market, what exists in the market, and how to take themselves to the market in a meaningful and authentic way that helps them stand out. Students are then invited to the “Success Day” where our team engages more than 30 health IT industry partners to volunteer time to review resumes, conduct mock-interviews of students, and share insight about effectively bridging to employment and breaking through the barriers. We call this “From Program to Paycheck.” We have also embedded an “Employer Connection” event to physically connect the students to the local, regional, and national employers who are interested in our health IT students, and finally, provide practicum opportunities with our health IT partners for hands-on, applied learning to gain real-work experience.

Michael Smith, a current student enrolled in the health IT training, tells a story that mirrors the complicated situations that many of the students face, and the hope, confidence, and opportunity that the health IT training programs are providing. “Many of you know that I lost my career (and home, and wife, and everything else) when I became disabled and laid off. Frustrated, I packed everything I owned into my Hyundai, drove west to Minnesota, and started fresh. Now physically rehabbed and mentally hungry again, I borrowed money from a friend to enroll in Normandale’s health IT program, and when accepted, I took advantage of every presented opportunity it had to offer. For me, the health IT training and the CareerHITrac program were the perfect solution. I now have the skills and confidence to present myself professionally and to succeed.”

At Normandale, we believe that the health IT training program; the career development programs; and our close partnership with providers, vendors, employers, our Regional Extension Center, and other state agencies have been the critical components of success to meet the health IT workforce needs of our state and region. We think of it as the health IT workforce version of the “triple aim!”

As of May 10, 2012, we will have trained more than 300 health IT professionals who are and will be doing the critical work that ONC envisioned, as clinical analysts, meaningful use consultants, workflow designers, data analysts, information exchange developers, systems trainers, implementation leads, and whatever additional roles may be needed as the country continues the transition to electronic health records. And, we know that we are changing lives and making a difference in helping providers and hospitals nationwide trade in their old-fashioned paper for EHRs and health IT tools that help providers and hospitals better care for their patients.