Not a Technical Role
Despite technology’s vital role in streamlining and providing more accessible health communication and information, many HIT coordinators don’t have a technical background.
Wolf said his position is more of an administrative post and his background is in accounting, auditing and budget management.
While Wolf’s job is located within North Dakota’s IT department, he said his function is to help enhance the use of health IT, not debugging or providing insight into the actual technology and how it works.
Similarly Cline has no IT experience. He’s a dentist and spent 28 years in public health, serving as North Carolina’s deputy state health director for 14 years before being appointed to his current position.
But Cline has also made it a priority to have a technology person on board for the more tech-centric discussions he’s involved in, particularly as they relate to health information exchanges and the technical architecture for North Carolina’s state-level exchange.
“I try to go to those, but I make sure that my technology lead is there because he understands that and is helping to shape [it],” Cline said.
O’Mara and Zaremba, however, do have some technology experience. O’Mara worked for an electronics firm that did work for the U.S. Department of Defense. Her background is in corporate marketing, business development and communications. Zaremba’s career has been focused on public health policy, which has involved technology.
Typically the HIT coordinator position is an allowable expense under grant monies that stem from the federally funded State Health Information Exchange Cooperative Agreement Program. The program aims to advance appropriate and secure health information exchanges across the health-care system. Cline’s post, however, is state-funded.
The difference allows more flexibility for North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue and state leaders to shape Cline’s role based on the state’s needs. Besides being the point of contact on the various health IT initiatives and grants in North Carolina, Cline provides leadership and strategic planning as it relates to health IT, spanning a multitude of state agencies.
North Carolina’s lawmakers also have charged Cline’s office with having a statewide oversight role. Every quarter he must produce a report to the state’s general assembly on various aspects of health IT and what’s going on statewide.
“It is kind of an undoable task, but it’s being their point person to hold responsible for looking across the whole state landscape of health IT, both public and private … and trying to make sure North Carolina is staying in good standing with the [federal government],” Cline said.
A shortage of health IT professionals is one issue coordinators see cropping up. While there is some funding available under HITECH for training programs, states such as Nevada are hoping the demand spurs business development opportunities.
O’Mara said she suspects that Nevada will need 2,500 to 3,000 health IT professionals by 2016 in order to support all of the EHRs and the health information exchange throughout the state.
“A doctor’s office is not going to hire a full-time health IT person,” O’Mara said. “But they are going to want the equivalent of a service that comes in that helps them — kind of like Best Buy’s Geek Squad.”
In Illinois, there is a “unanimous consensus” among various physicians, hospitals and government agencies that there will be a lack of trained health IT personnel, according to Zaremba.
Regardless of the shortage, officials are optimistic that progress is inevitable and the challenges will work themselves out as the systems are put in place.
“We have tolerated low IT in health care more than any other industry I can think of,” Cline said. “Everyone else sees the value of it ... but health care has really been slow to embrace what IT can do for it. I think that this is the time for that change.”