Salaries coming alive in health care IT

You can't spell "vital" without "IT." Techies working in health care are making healthy amounts of money, as IT becomes a vital part of Rx.

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Being an IT pro in health care could be good for your bank account.

According to a recent survey by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), 75% of U.S. IT pros in the health care industry got raises last year, with the average salary being $96,568.

"Right now it's a great time to be in health care IT," said Eric Brown, vice president of health care research for Forrester Research Inc. "I can't point to an industry of this size that has had doubling of IT investments."

The knee-jerk, one-word explanation to this news? The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. But according to some CIOs in the health care industry, compliance with HIPAA isn't the only catalyst behind the cash.

Another reason could be because the stakes in health IT are higher these days. Patient safety is now an IT issue, not just a clinician issue.

Putting the IT in 'vital'

"We all feel the pressure -- we're dealing with patients' lives," said Nancy Proctor, CIO of Vanderbilt University Hospital and Vanderbilt Children's Hospital in Nashville, Tenn. Fifteen years ago, IT was responsible for financial work at the hospital., While tasks such as billing are still important, IT now focuses on providing vital patient information -- medical history, medication, treatment and so on -- to doctors and nurses documenting the data and enabling medical professionals to share it with other caregivers in real time.

The paper-based systems aren't coming back, and the increasing onus on IT requires skilled people and competitive salaries to keep them.

"The need for people who understand the systems and the infrastructure to support it could be driving [the salary increases]," Proctor said. "It could also be driven by fact that we have sicker patients, and trying to take care of complex patients requires strong skill sets to manage the system."

Skills that help ensure 24/7 availability are especially important at Vanderbilt. "It's a risk if the systems are not up all the time," she said. "Everything now is so dependent on IT -- it's like the utilities."

Proctor said skills in electronic medical records technologies may be driving some of the salary increases, but EMR is only part of it.

"The key thing is patient safety and quality and where it's headed," she added. "We need infrastructure and skill sets to provide it."

Money talks -- and retains

Susan Wolff, CIO of Naples Community Hospital in Florida, said that EMR is such a hot skill at her two hospitals, she's using raises to hang on to skilled employees or she risks losing them.

Last year she had to lobby for raises for staff directly involved with EMR. "They had the experience and were so marketable that consultants and vendors needed them and ate them up," she said. "I structured salary increases and bonuses to keep these folks." A few of her employees did leave, but Wolff said attractive salaries have helped her bring in and keep some good people.

Wolff believes that the industry is moving closer toward EMR; she said there's been talk on the national level of mandating it within 10 years. "EMR has improved quality and safety to patients and service to doctors -- doctors can do their jobs from their home offices, their wireless laptops and so on."

EMR is an ongoing process at Nashville-based HCA Inc., the largest hospital corporation in the U.S. But those skills aren't necessarily the most sought after. Right now, HCA competes for IT pros who are skilled at securing the vast amount of patient data transmitted throughout its nearly 300 hospitals and surgery centers.

"True security and IT architecture pros are hard to find," said assistant vice president of IT Janet Gilmore. "We're having to compete more for good talent."

Gilmore also believes that increased attention to patient confidentiality and HIPAA compliance may be increasing the value of IT in health care. "The increased need and desire to access data means the technology needs to be more mature," she said. "But the IT issues still pale in comparison to the clinical issues."

Fiscal health

Forrester's Brown thinks something else may be driving higher salaries in health care IT.

"Patient privacy, safety and quality are noble, but at the end of the day, it's the employers and payers who are providing the market dynamic for hospitals to invest in IT and the services and staff to go with it," he said.

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Brown believes that because insurers reimburse hospitals based on quality and degree of service, hospitals need data to demonstrate to the marketplace that they have the goods and should be compensated accordingly. This puts the pressure on IT to provide and measure data that's vital to a hospital's business health.

"You're seeing a little bit of Six Sigma here," he said. "The people who pay the bills want metrics and to get market forces in the game. They want the bang for the buck."

But hospitals need top-notch, well-paid IT pros for more than that. According to Proctor, IT could be the difference when it comes to attracting and keeping nurses, who are becoming an increasingly precious commodity.

"The nursing shortage has been building up for some time," Proctor said. "We need to provide IT to support nurses so they won't have to deal with so much paper.

"They want to work at hospitals where they have supportive technology."

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