Sherri Stuart has been a physician assistant for the last 30 years. She didn’t expect her career to dramatically change, but this spring she got a new job with substantial increases in pay and responsibility, thanks to her enrollment in a new health information technology (IT) training program.
The practice where she worked began using an electronic health record (EHR) system six years ago, and Stuart was impressed by the system’s potential to improve quality, reduce redundancy, and increase access to care. Through a contact at her local Regional Extension Center (REC), Stuart heard about a scholarship opportunity to learn more about health informatics at the University of Colorado Denver’s Health Information Technology program, and after one semester of classes, she was recruited for a new position managing the clinical applications and workflow of four outpatient hospital clinics’ EHR implementation.
“This new job is absolutely a new direction for me, and a new chapter in my life,” Stuart said. “It’s the culmination of my health care experience and my new training in health IT, management, and leadership.”
Stuart’s scholarship is part of a $32 million federal investment designed to rapidly develop a professional health IT workforce to serve in roles that require university-level training.This financial assistance is available to students and professionals nationwide, and was included in the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
The HITECH Act’s funding also supports training programs at 82 community colleges, curriculum development for use in community colleges and other institutions of higher education, and the development of competency examinations. Totaling $118 million, this investment in workforce training aims to supply health care providers across the country with the highly skilled experts needed to support the adoption and meaningful use of EHR.
Over the next three years, about 1,700 graduate-level students will receive tuition assistance for enrollment in nine university programs nationwide. To date, nearly 650 students have been enrolled in the programs, and more than 400 students will graduate between May-August 2011.
“I don’t think I would have embarked on this without the scholarship, at my own cost,” Stuart said. “This is a new field, and the future is relatively unknown. But my new position is a direct result of this opportunity.”
Building Real-World Skills, Virtually
The university programs receiving HITECH funds are intended for students like Stuart, who are mid-career and who already have backgrounds in either health care or IT, but need to develop specific health IT capabilities. The programs can also assist Bachelor-level graduates who want to enter the new and growing career field of health IT.
At the University of Colorado Denver, project director Diane J. Skiba has cultivated a diverse student body and developed a program designed to build expertise with a heavy emphasis on teamwork and leadership.
“When you want to implement a new system in a health care setting, it is very important to consider how the people there work as a team,” Dr. Skiba said. “For example, in a practice, you have the nurses, the doctors, the business side of the practice, the schedulers. Collaboration is critical in this environment.”
Kellyn Pearson, RN, MSN, another University of Colorado Denver student, says she, too, is already benefiting from her continued education. After beginning classes in fall 2010, Pearson began working with HealthTeamWorks, one of the nonprofit organizations contracting with the Colorado Regional Health Information Organization, the HITECH-funded REC working in Colorado to help primary care clinicians use EHRs. Pearson’s role is to work hands-on with medical practices to help them select EHR systems, integrate the new technology into their daily practice, and meaningfully use the systems.
“The program fills in the big theoretical picture, and helps you understand how all the different parts work together,” Pearson said. “In one class, we learned how an EHR works, how it can be used in the office, how implementing an EHR can affect workflow, and how you can get an office to change from paper records to electronic. These are the tools that I can take back into my work every day.”
Living 40 miles from Denver, Pearson takes advantage of the program’s distance learning initiatives, such as online chat and computer simulations in Second Life, a virtual, online world. Using these tools, Pearson is able to connect with her peers living and working across Colorado and other states for real-time discussions and team projects.
Pearson says that working closely with her peers has been valuable, since the varied backgrounds that students bring to their team projects add to the educational experience. “For one project on systems lifecycle, our group went through the whole process of selecting and designing a bar code medication administration system for a hospital setting. A couple of people in the group had worked in a hospital setting implementing such a system, so their input was grounded in real life.”
Cultivating Leaders in Rural Areas
Emily Burns, MD, MSPH, lives in Durango, CO, and also capitalizes on the University of Colorado Denver’s distance learning opportunities. Between her roles as executive director of Southwestern Colorado Area Health Education Center (AHEC) and as an assistant professor of epidemiology, Dr. Burns is not in the market for additional employment. However, she is passionate about developing expertise in health IT and applying her skills and knowledge to her rural community.
According to Dr. Burns, rural areas like her community are the most in need of health IT experts. “When I’m out talking to rural providers, I often find that there is little awareness of health IT. In some cases, they don’t have accurate information, and in many cases, they do not know what to do about health IT. Aside from the vendors who come into the area, there’s not a lot of expertise,” she said. “Furthermore, offices are fairly small in rural areas, so there is little extra capacity to take on a project like implementing an EHR.”
Dr. Burns applied for the university program in order to help her local providers stay abreast of developments in the national movement toward adoption of health IT.
“I figured that if I built my own expertise through this program, then I could provide timely leadership to rural providers. Part of the AHEC mission is to provide continuing education to rural providers, and health IT is currently an area of great need,” Dr. Burns said. “I don’t want them to miss out on opportunities.”
The Colorado Regional Extension Center (CO-REC) and other RECs across the country often look to community leaders like Dr. Burns for help in motivating health care providers to implement EHR systems in their daily practices. According to Elizabeth Brooks at Health TeamWorks, a partner organization of CO-REC, “It’s important that we have physician champions who are engaged and interested in health IT. Their clinical knowledge and experience coupled with a health IT background provides physician leadership for their community and fosters adoption.”
Brooks cites two rationales often mentioned by physicians as reasons to abstain from implementing EHRs: the technology is too expensive and implementations often fail. “The importance of having physician champions in a community to inform about the pros and cons of electronic health records cannot be overstated,” she said. “The health IT scholarships and education are essential in developing this leadership.”