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Health IT Careers Begin in Texas Thanks to Recovery Act Funding

Texas Students Help Nonprofit Clinic Get Automated

Health IT Certificate students at the University of Texas at Austin participate in mock clinics in a learning laboratory at the Clinical Education Center at University Medical Center Brackenridge. From left to right: Sean El Haj, Sachin Chopra and Dustin Murders.

Photo by Kimberly A. Smith

The Shalom Health Ministry Clinic in Houston, Texas, is a small nonprofit that runs on paper, making it difficult for the clinic to monitor the health of its diabetes patients and track new patients. But the clinic may be beginning to enter the 21st century in health information technology as the result of help from students in a Recovery Act-funded health information technology (IT) training program at the University of Texas at Austin.

As part of their intensive nine-week course this summer, the students were assigned to overhaul Shalom’s paper health record system and create a useable Excel database system – in just one day.

“Everything was paper. Appointments were written by hand in a notebook,” said Daniel Fritz, one of the students. Fritz was one of 54 students in the first Recovery Act-funded health IT professional training program to graduate a class this summer.

By the time the day was over, the students had created a system that allows the clinic to track its diabetes patients by computer without awkward paper files.

Health IT Training Program in Texas

The University of Texas at Austin is part of a consortium led by Texas State University, San Marcos, which received a $5.4 million Recovery Act grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to produce university-trained professionals for highly specialized health IT jobs. The third member of the consortium is the University of Texas School of Biomedical Informatics in Houston.

The consortium -- known as the Professional University Resources and Education for Health Information Technology (PURE HIT) – is committed to educating 320 students for various types of health IT jobs.

In less than two months since the end of the intensive summer program, 21 of the 36 students who have graduated from the university have already landed full-time jobs in the health IT field, while another five are in paid internships.  

Producing a highly-trained health IT workforce is key to the Obama administration’s plans to promote widespread meaningful use of EHR technology to improve patient care and increase efficiency in health care. As David Blumenthal, national coordinator for health information technology at HHS said when the awards were announced last spring: “Training a cadre of new health IT professionals … [is] critical to the national effort to use information technology to realize better patient care.”

HHS Health IT Program Invests in High Tech Jobs

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) earlier this year awarded $84 million in Recovery Act funds to higher education institutions to develop curricula and train students for the high tech jobs that will be necessary if doctors, hospitals and health clinics are to move to Electronic Health Records (EHR). Of those funds, $32 million were awarded to Texas State and eight other schools to develop university-based training programs, including:

  • Columbia University,
  • University of Colorado Denver College of Nursing,
  • Duke University,
  • George Washington University,
  • Indiana University,
  • Johns Hopkins University,
  • University of Minnesota, and
  • Oregon Health and Science University.

Learn more about these university programs.

 “The next generation of patients is not going to be happy with physicians and hospitals and nurses that don't use computers," said Blumenthal, who toured the UT-Austin learning lab for the health IT program in October.

Meeting the Demand for Trained Health IT Professionals

A major factor behind establishing the training programs was to help the Texas health care industry meet its burgeoning technology needs and achieve widespread adoption and meaningful use of EHR technology.

“We think there are some big [economic] winds here. We need some help to batten down the hatches,” said Susan Fenton, an assistant professor of health information management at Texas State, the principal investigator of the PURE-HIT consortium.

UT-Austin is also collaborating with industry partners, such as CenTex System Support Services and Lone Star Circle of Care, GE Healthcare, eClinicalWorks and Allscripts, as well as the Seton Family of Hospitals, the Texas e-Health Alliance and the Texas Medical Association.

The information officer of one of the school’s industry partners said the Texas health IT programs are well timed because of the demand that “is out there in the marketplace.”

What Students Are Saying about This Program

One of the summer program students hired shortly after graduation said she was amazed how quickly she was able to find a job. “I always wanted to be in health care,” she said.

 Another woman who works full time in the public health arena is taking a course by video conference at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Tyler from Texas State University-San Marcos two days a week to become a health information manager and software engineer. After finishing the health IT training, she plans to assist physicians, hospitals and clinics in how to use new health IT systems and implement policies to ensure patient confidentiality.

“You have to keep up. You have to be in the know,” she said of her health IT studies.

Benefits of the Program for the Future

In addition to their health IT training in the UT-Austin summer program, students also learned:

  • How to make presentations to health care providers,
  • How to put together an effective resume, and
  • How to interview for jobs.

“We heard from industry officials that professional communications skills are just as important as academic information,” said Leanne H. Field, director of health IT programs at UT-Austin. Learning these skills helped the students become more confident in their work and professional dealings, she said.

Fenton says the Recovery Act-funded IT programs are designed to be sustaining once the stimulus funds run out: “The need for health care [IT] workers doesn’t go away.”