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How to Break Into a Career in Health Care IT

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What is Health IT (or HIT)?

Healthcare IT is the use of computer and digital technology in medical facilities to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of clinical healthcare for patients and providers. Healthcare IT can include but is not limited to electronic coding and billing systems, electronic medical records (EMR), and networks for digital imaging such as PACS.

How to Break Into the Health IT Field:

So how do you get into this exciting field? Shawn Riley successfully made a career transition into Healthcare IT, from a general, non-medical IT career at IBM. He is a former Chief Technology Officer over two large medical facilities, and the current CEO of HealthTechnica.com, a website for healthcare IT professionals.

According to Mr. Riley, there are primarily two ways to break into healthcare IT. One way is from the clinical side, (a clinician who moves into a health IT role) and the other is from the IT side (an IT professional, without healthcare experience, who makes the transition into a healthcare IT role.)

Transition from Clinician to Healthcare IT Professional:

According to Riley, this is the easier of the two paths into a Health IT career, because clinical knowledge is very valuable in the Health IT field. Clinicians who transfer into health IT may come from a background as a physician or a nurse, or from a laboratory career or other allied health technologist. Clinicians may be seeking a new challenge, or new ways to apply their clinical knowledge and experience to process improvement, or a change out of direct patient care.

Careers in nursing informatics, clinical process improvement, and service line analysts are a few of the most common careers for former clinicians.

The Challenge in Going from Clinician to Health IT Professional:

The biggest challenge for a clinician entering the Health IT field is the different culture in IT as compared to healthcare. The IT culture, according to Riley, is more rigid than the clinical environment. In IT, "everything follows a design, every step should be repeatable. The clinician usually must focus on the individual. IT will focus on the entire organization."

Riley notes that clinicians are often resistant to change, while IT implementation is all about change, in the form of process improvement, and finding new, faster, better ways to do things utilizing information technology.

Additionally, new language and terminology in IT present a learning curve for clinicians who transfer into a health IT role. Riley refers to it as “Geek Speak”.

Transition from IT to Health IT, Without Prior Medical or Clinical Experience:

Riley is familiar with the transition from general IT to Health IT, as it is a career move he once made himself. He worked at IBM prior to his work in Health IT at Mayo. Due to increased competition, it can be more difficult to land a job in health IT if you’re coming in with no healthcare experience. However, Riley’s experience is one example of many that shows that the transition can be made successfully.

Due to the level of competition and the number of IT professionals competing for jobs in healthcare IT, the interview is the primary way to separate yourself to stand out ahead of the pack of applicants.

"You need to be at the top of your game when interviewing. Primarily, you will need to speak to the patient care mission of the organization." Riley adds that the healthcare world revolves around the provider and the patient, which can be a major adjustment for some IT professionals who have not worked in a healthcare environment in the past. "When you work at IBM, IT is the absolute center of the universe. IT is a support group in the medical world, not the center of the show."

Interview Tips:

Physicians and the healthcare providers are the revenue producers of a healthcare facility. If they are not effective and efficient, the quality and quantity of patient care suffers, which in turn impacts the financial stability of the organization.

"Discuss the needs of the physician, nurse, pharmacist, and other clinicians. You may not have enough experience in Health IT to talk directly to their needs, but you certainly can talk about doing everything possible to ensure maximum uptime and efficiency in those areas. Be sure to acknowledge the importance of keeping the physicians effective."

Education and Certifications for Health Care IT Careers:

Most Healthcare IT jobs require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, preferably in a field related to either healthcare or IT. Advanced degrees such as an MBA, MSN, or MS in an IT or MIS-related field are always helpful.

If you are a clinician, Riley recommends that you keep your clinical licensure and certifications active and up to date. Even though you’re no longer in a clinical role, do not allow clinical certifications or licenses to lapse, as they are still preferred for Health IT jobs. Plus, if you decide to go back into clinical work, you will be glad you actively maintained these certifications.

If you are an IT professional, keep your IT certifications active. CISSP, CCNA, and PMP are a few technical certifications that are in high demand in Healthcare IT, according to Shawn Riley.

Riley is very enthusiastic about careers in healthcare IT, and seems to have absolutely no regrets about leaving IBM to break into Healthcare IT. “HIT is the fastest growing IT sector in the world today,” Riley states. He adds that this is due to “unparalleled growth in health care services,” along with explosive growth in the demand for electronic medical records.

“If you are motivated, willing to learn, and are able to adapt to the changing needs of the clinical environment, you will thrive,” he concludes.

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