Job market for techies to get healthier?

Demand for tech professionals has been slipping of late, but Obama's plan to digitize health records may give it a shot in the arm.

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By Anne Fisher, contributor

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The stimulus plan forecasts 50,000 new IT jobs by the end of 2010, thanks in large part to incentives to digitize health records.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Dear Annie: As I understand it, President Obama's economic stimulus package contains incentives for hospitals and medical offices to get all their old paper medical records computerized, which is supposed to produce huge cost savings in the health-care system (and I think it's pretty obvious that it would do so). This caught my attention a few weeks ago when the stimulus package was first unveiled, since I have some experience in the health-care field and several IT certifications, but I haven't heard any mention of it lately. Do you think that, assuming it gets through Congress, this plan to wire the medical world could create many IT jobs? -Tacoma Techie for Hire

Dear Tacoma Techie: Possibly. The Obama Administration certainly thinks so. A White House report called "The Job Impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan" (a.k.a. the stimulus package) forecasts 50,000 new IT jobs by the end of 2010, thanks in large part to incentives to digitize health records.

But that figure might be a bit high. "We don't have many details yet on exactly how the $17 billion [in government incentive money] will flow to doctors and hospitals," notes Pat Cline, president of NextGen Healthcare Information Systems , one player in a specialized consulting industry aimed at helping health-care professionals use technology to run their operations more efficiently. NextGen has been growing at a pretty good clip lately, hiring about 30 people in the past two months, after increasing its workforce by 12% (about 70 people) in 2008.

"I hope the stimulus plan creates enough new demand that we'll be hiring 100 more people a year," Cline says. Over the next three years, Cline estimates that companies like his could add a total of up to 5,000 new IT jobs.

"Hospitals and doctors' offices would also be hiring IT people on their side to work on this," he says, estimating that "altogether, we could see up to 20,000 new jobs." That isn't anywhere near 50,000, but it's still not too shabby.

And while your medical experience is a plus, according to Cline, it isn't really necessary given your background in IT. "Most health-care infotech companies will hire tech people without any health care background and do intensive on-the-job training," he says. Hospitals, clinics, and medical groups often do likewise, he says.

How do you find health-care infotech companies? You might try the Health Care Information Technology Yellow Pages. Some of these firms will likely soon be hiring, if they're not already.

In combination with another part of the Obama stimulus plan that is intended to upgrade technology in public schools, the health-care push could increase IT jobs by 29% over the next 10 years, according to an analysis by occupational expert Laurence Shatkin, Ph.D. He's the author of several books about the job market, including, most recently, Great Jobs in the President's Stimulus Plan (Jist, $12.95). Says Shatkin: "There's little doubt that switching the medical profession over to computers will create tens of thousands of new high-tech jobs."

For a mini-case history of how that might happen, consider CareGroup Health System (www.caregroup.org), a coalition of four hospitals and several medical groups in the Boston area. John D. Halamka, M.D., M.S., is CareGroup's chief information officer, as well as the CIO and dean for technology at Harvard Medical School.

This year, CareGroup plans to wire 150 doctors in 75 separate practices. For the Beth Israel Deaconess Community Clinician practice, a medical group with four offices, getting all the medical records online in a way that doctors can easily transfer and update them will require 19 new employees, plus three more at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Needham, Mass., to coordinate the whole project. "We've created 22 jobs for the rollout and support of this project alone," says Halamka. Multiply that by the number of physicians and medical groups needing to computerize nationwide, and you can see that Obama's plan could create large numbers of new high-tech jobs.

Still, I'd be remiss not to mention that not everybody is quite so optimistic. Curious about the view from the trenches, I asked Dice.com, a major IT job board, to survey techies visiting its site. Of the roughly 500 IT professionals polled, 60% said they think the Obama plan will indeed create significant numbers of new jobs for techies. About 80% said they personally would take a health-care infotech job and almost 90% said they'd be willing to get special training to do so.

Quite a few, however, agreed with Melynda Bailey, 43, who does curriculum design for a Dallas software maker. "It's a great idea, but I don't think it's going to be a question of medical practitioners hiring highly-skilled IT people into permanent positions," she says. "It's a lot cheaper to bring someone in short term to train nurses and office assistants to input the data and run the systems." She adds: "I'm also skeptical of anything that is run by the federal government. So much bureaucracy is going to be piled on top of it." Noted.

Readers, what do you think? How do you think the tech job market is doing now? Is the economic stimulus plan likely to create - or preserve - jobs in your field? Tell us on the Ask Annie blogTo top of page

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