Achieving the vision of a consumer-centric and information-rich healthcare industry outlined in the report of the Office of the National Health Information Technology Coordinator requires a broad range of public and private initiatives over the next decade, not the least of which is a well-planned and well-executed national strategy for preparing the health workforce.
We need to take steps now to ensure that our nation will realize the true and full value of IT investments. This will be possible only if the health workforce has the skills and competencies needed to practice in an interconnected system. The work processes and skills of every clinician, manager, researcher and healthcare worker who uses medical records or byproduct data will need to be updated. This is a challenge for those in practice who must be retrained and for programs that must prepare today's students for tomorrow's practice.
The American Health Information Management Association has had the transition to electronic health records in its sights since the 1980s but has accelerated its efforts in recent years as national momentum for change has grown. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the need for about 97,000 new health information-management workers through 2010 to fill new jobs and replace workers who leave the field, making this one of the 10 fastest-growing health occupations. In 2002, health information-management training programs in colleges and universities were graduating less than one-third of the students required under the bureau's forecasts. Without an adequate number of health information-management professionals, our country will have a tough time moving an industry that represents one-seventh of the U.S. gross domestic product from paper to electronic records.
Driven by critical workforce shortages and the accelerated pace of change, AHIMA undertook extensive research to better understand today's workforce and how health IT would affect it. Through quantitative research, we learned that health information-management professionals work in 40 settings-including hospitals, public health, pharmaceutical companies and physicians' offices-and hold 200 different job titles-including chief information officers, data quality analysts and electronic health-record trainer. We also learned that there are parts of the country lacking college training programs in health information management leading to a serious shortage of qualified staff.
The research included a qualitative phase that studied the roles of health information-management professionals in organizations that are further along in implementing electronic health records. Here we learned that health information-management professionals are deployed throughout organizations to better manage decentralized electronic record systems. We also learned about the skills and competencies that are most highly valued in health information managers.
At the same time the association launched an electronic health information-management initiative whose goals are to promote the migration from paper to an electronic health information infrastructure, reinvent how electronic records and information are managed, and deliver measurable cost and quality results from improved information management.
An electronic health information-management task force offered a vision for health information-management practice in an electronic environment and this has driven a number of initiatives, including updated curriculum models for health information-management education at the associate's, bachelor's and master's degree levels and faculty development programming; practice guidelines on topics that practitioners face in transitioning from paper to electronic records; a consumer education initiative; Web training courses on using the new tools and technologies and leadership training in change management; and applied research to guide practice innovation.
The association has also ramped up its student recruitment efforts and has seen a 40% increase in enrollment in college and university training programs since 2001-better, but still not approximating the demand forecast by the labor bureau. Little progress has been made in getting new baccalaureate and master's programs established in areas of need because of tight college and university budgets. Availability of faculty is another limiting factor for health information-management, nursing and other allied health programs.
AHIMA and other allied health groups support passage of allied health education reinvestment bills in the House and Senate that are modeled on the Nurse Reinvestment Act. We urge the industry to get behind these bills. We will convene a summit early next year to develop an education plan to keep pace with the transition to a digital healthcare system.
At AHIMA's 76th National Convention and Exhibit in Washington, set for Oct. 9-14 in conjunction with the 14th Congress of the International Federation of Health Records Organizations, there will be extensive focus on educating health information workers on a global basis. Others with national health information initiatives such as Canada and the United Kingdom are grappling with building a workforce to deploy and manage health IT. There is tremendous potential to achieve great progress in a very short period of time, but only if we have the knowledgeable workers to support systemwide change. The time is now to raise this issue as a highest priority.
Linda Kloss is executive vice president and chief executive officer of the American Health Information Management Association, Chicago.