Training Docs, Nurses to Go Paperless

Tommy David, a medical coder at St. David's Hospital.
Tommy David, a medical coder at St. David's Hospital.

Physicians in Texas are just starting to use electronic medical records in their practices. But with the promise of thousands of new jobs in the field, Central Texas colleges are jumping at the chance to train their students in the technology. Texas State University in San Marcos and the University of Texas at Austin are partnering with the University of Texas School of Health Information in Houston to apply for a new federal grant in health information that could bring in $6 million across the three campuses.

The schools are preparing to take advantage of thousands of job openings: The Office of the National Coordinator in Washington estimates that the U.S. will be short 50,000 skilled workers over the next five years to make the conversion to e-health records. That could mean as many as 5,000 new jobs in Texas. “Trying to get that many people to implement that technology that quickly, part of what that produces is great demand for additional workers,” says Susan Fenton, an assistant professor at Texas State who is heading the grant application.

Students seem to have taken notice. Enrollment in Texas State’s undergraduate Health Information Management program jumped 25 percent last fall, to approximately 100 students. Past graduates are already working in local hospitals and at the Department of Veterans Affairs. And at UT-Austin, a new program launching this summer would train recent graduates of the College of Natural Sciences in a health information technology curriculum.

Fenton says the Texas State program is targeted to people who may be looking to make a job or career change and break into health care. She said the demand for technologically skilled workers will be especially high in rural Texas communities. “Not only would they have the demand because they haven’t had the resources to implement already,” she says, “but they would also have the most need in terms of the training because it's hard for them to improve staff.”

Bill Sage, vice provost for health affairs at UT, says the federal government’s focus on turning health records paperless makes the curriculum on his campus a logical choice. “This is something that’s both a social need and an economic opportunity,” he says. If the federal grant comes through, it could also fund executive and continuing education in the field. “There’s an opportunity both to help people who are extremely well-versed technologically to understand health care and take people who understand health care and get them involved with technology,” Sage says.

Leanne Field, the director of the new certificate program, says 50 percent of UT biology students are still looking for work after graduation. “Not everyone will get into medical school and a professional school and so that will leave a lot of students looking for jobs,” Field said. “We believe this is a wonderful opportunity to help introduce our students into this new discipline.”

The four-year colleges aren’t the only ones getting in on the e-records action. Austin Community College began training health IT students this fall, when it launched a new associate’s degree program after several years of awarding certificates in health information technology. The first class of students will receive their degrees in 2011 — just in time to compete for a projected 25 open positions in health information in the Austin area over the next five years. In many cases, program director Norma Mercado says, enrollees in the program are current hospital employees who are asked by hospital administrators to gain additional skills with an associate’s degree, and they learn from professionals who are taking part themselves in the digital transition. “Our instructors, full-time and adjunct, have all worked out in the community and been directors or consultants [for health information technology],” Mercado said.

Texas State’s Fenton said there is some uncertainty for health IT students, as they train for jobs that in many cases don’t yet exist. “Think about what happened in the ‘90s with the Internet — how quickly everything grew,” she said. “It was a little bit of a sort of a Wild West syndrome. It’s a little like that now.”

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