Bill Hersh is a physician and chairman of the medical informatics and clinical epidemiology department at Oregon Health & Science University and a man on the hustle.
The university was a triple winner in the federal workforce grant competition, receiving a total of $5.8 million in funding for three programs—nearly $3.1 million for advanced training to medical professionals in healthcare informatics; more than $1.8 million to develop curricula to be used by community colleges to train healthcare IT workers; and $900,000 to serve as the National Training and Dissemination Center for the curriculum-development program.
Oregon Health & Science has an established, nationally recognized medical informatics program. At any given time, Hersh says, the university may have as many as 200 people enrolled in its post-graduate, 24-credit-hour certificate program and its 52-credit-hour, master's degree in biomedical informatics program.
About two-thirds of the current enrollment in those programs consists of clinical professionals—with half of that group being physicians—and the remaining third being computer people, Hersh says.
The federal, advanced-education grants will be for scholarships to those programs, Hersh says, with the caveat being that enrollees in the federally funded graduate certificate programs must complete their work in 12 months, whereas in the past, a typical enrollee, who works and goes to school at the same time, often takes longer to complete the same course.
“If they do our graduate certificate program, they have to do it all in a year,” Hersh says, but the trade-off for the rush is, “in essence, people can get a free education.” Tuition for the certificate program is about $12,000. “We have 45 slots per year,” Hersh says. “The people who don't get funded can still do the program.” It just won't be subsidized, he adds.
Aid recipients under this one-year, advanced educational grant program also must choose from six career paths: clinician/public health leader; HIM and exchange specialist; health information privacy and security specialist; research and development scientist; programmers and software engineers; and health IT subspecialist.
In addition to Oregon Health & Science, eight other universities will share in a total of $32 million in stimulus law funding for university-based, advanced IT education programs. They are: Columbia University; the University of Colorado Denver College of Nursing; Duke University; George Washington University; Indiana University; Johns Hopkins University; the University of Minnesota; and Texas State University, San Marcos.
Along with its graduate-level programs, Oregon Health & Science, as part of its triple-win, will join Columbia, Duke and Johns Hopkins as well as the University of Alabama at Birmingham in sharing ONC grants totaling $10 million to develop curricula to support the six-month, community college IT certificate programs.
The new curricula will cover 20 different content categories, including history of health IT, installation and maintenance of health IT systems, project management, and the use of IT in quality improvement.
“The people who got funded were all experts in informatics who have been doing this kind of instruction,” Hersh says, although none before have developed curricula for community colleges.
To make up for lack of community college experience, each of the contracting universities was obliged to enlist “a suitable number of community college partners,” Hersh says. “In my center, there are four community colleges partners. There are faculty that will work with us as subject-matter experts that will come up with curricula suitable for the community college setting.”
Work on curriculum development by the five universities and their community college partners began almost immediately after the grants were awarded in early April, Hersh says.
The schools have less than four months to complete their curriculum development work before Oregon Health & Science welcomes 400 community college educators to Portland in August for a crash course in the new IT training program outlines.
“It will be a pretty intensive week late that month,” Hersh says. After that, the newly trained faculty will return home and get ready for a hoped-for influx of new IT students. By the end of September, the entire first wave of new IT students is expected to be enrolled.
The participating 70 community colleges will form five consortia, each geographically dispersed, although not every state will have a participating community college. The five consortia will each be led by one community college—Bellevue (Wash.) College; Los Rios Community College, Sacramento, Calif.; Cuyahoga Community College, Cleveland; Pitt Community College, Greenville, N.C., and Tidewater Community College, Norfolk, Va. Grants awarded to these schools could total $70 million over the next two years—$36 million this year and up to $34 million the next.
Bellevue College's Dombrowski is director of the life science informatics center at the school, where administrators years ago foresaw the looming demand for health IT workers and began developing training programs to meet the industry's needs.
For example, the college has graduated about 17 health IT workers a year over the past six years from its own 12-month, 30-credit-hour health IT training program, Dombrowski says.
In 2008, as doldrums beset the Puget Sound IT job market, the college responded by creating a six-month program aimed at providing experienced IT workers from other industries with a background in healthcare IT. The 18-credit-hour program for these IT veterans opened this January with students to spare.
“We could have probably seated 50 or more, but we limited it to 25,” Dombrowski says.
In addition, Bellevue just finished curriculum development and will begin offering this summer a three-month program for incumbent physician-office practice managers on IT project management and EHR support, she says. “Now we're ready to scale up” for the HHS-funded training program, Dombrowski says.
Community colleges are not obligated to use the curricula developed by Oregon Health & Science and the other four universities, but all must focus their training programs on the six federally designated career paths. Although no single school is required to offer courses on all six job targets, each consortium must see that all six are covered within their group.
“I doubt we'll do all six,” Dombrowski says. “We have to see a little more about the curriculum before we make a decision about that.”
Bellevue could get by with just some tweaks to its existing courses and curricula to adapt them to the federal program, Dombrowski says.
“We think we're spot on and at the very worst, very close, but we have not seen the standard, and we've made some suggestions about the ONC accepting the existing curriculum, but that remains to be seen,” she says. If required, “We stand ready to implement the national curricula.”
Bellevue will receive $1 million from the ONC grant to oversee its consortium, which includes seven other community colleges. Each community college, including Bellevue, will receive the same $625,000 in federal grant money to run its training programs and other services. Bellevue's additional $375,000 will go to administer the consortium.
In addition to teachers and course materials, Bellevue will provide its students with retention programs, such as student tutoring and counseling, and employment services, Dombrowski says. The amount of money the ONC is providing, “seems adequate to the task,” she adds. “Community colleges are always looking at ways to enhance existing programs and add new programs and have a sustained output from it.”
Will there be enough time to develop and disseminate the curricula, train educators and be ready for the first day of school come September?
Dombrowski thinks so.
“It's wonderful in these tough times for people to be able to draw a direct line from training to be put to work,” she says. “The beauty of this is it's so directly related to people who need work.”