Julie Michaelson has spent five years working on her hospital’s information technology system, but she says it would be a misconception to think she’s computer savvy. Mary McAward worked for years in data processing before being laid off, and is hoping the coming wave of health information technology will mean a new career path for her.

Both are taking federally funded courses at Capital Community College, part of a national effort to educate more than 10,500 people in the electronic systems that, after years of discussion, are poised to become commonplace in medicine.

That means jobs, to build, install and maintain the systems. The federal Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology has estimated that the nation will need 50,000 more health IT workers by 2015.

Julie Michaelson

Julie Michaelson listens to a lecture on health IT

But as hospitals look to cut costs amid forecasts of tighter health care budgets, will the work be done by people like Michaelson, a registered nurse who added technology to her job functions? Or will there be newer positions for people like McAward?

Experts say there could be room for both.

There’s already been a dramatic increase in demand for people with information technology skills, in part because virtually all hospitals are upgrading or implementing new electronic medical record systems to meet federal standards, said John Brady, chief financial officer and vice president of business planning. Physicians in private practice have been slower to embrace electronic records, particularly those in solo or small practices without the resources to invest the money and time required to get new systems, but federal funding and state-level assistance are helping many in primary care make the switch.

“Things need to be built, and right now, we’re all in a building phase,” said Adam Greenberg, a health information technology consultant who teaches some of the classes at Capital.

Once the systems are in place, there will be a need for people to maintain them.

“It is definitely something where I think you’ll see a net increase in jobs,” Brady said.

In addition to new jobs, Leticia Colon, staff development and grants coordinator at Hartford Hospital, predicted that the new technology requirements will likely mean a need for increased training for existing health care workers. Nurses and personal care attendants didn’t used to need to know how to use computers, she noted, but now they do.

“The whole medical field is changing based on this,” she said.

More than technology

Electronic medical records can make it easier to collect data to see how effective a given technique or program is. They can make it easier to standardize procedures so patient care is more uniform. Experts expect the electronic records to help prevent errors, such as bad drug interactions, and duplicated tests.

Health IT class

Students at Capital Community College’s health IT class

But making the change isn’t easy, and it’s requires understanding more than technology, as Greenberg told students during a recent class at Capital. There’s the need to get colleagues to accept the new systems, which can mean changing the way they work and giving up things they trust, like paper records. Making them comfortable with it requires relationship-building and explanation, he said.

In the evolution of health information technology, he said, the industry is still crawling, and about to stand up.

Michaelson said patients and their families already expect hospitals to be automated. But she said health care’s complexity, like the need for clinical judgment, makes it a challenge.

Michaelson was a nurse at Hartford Hospital when she was chosen five years ago to help design and test health information technology systems, working to determine what would and wouldn’t work in a clinical setting. She addresses questions like what information the system should alert health care providers to, and how information about patient allergies should be handled.

Designing and using the systems require an understanding of both technology and how work is done in the hospital. For Michaelson, the class at Capital meant a way to catch up on the technology side.

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” she said.

Hoping for a job

The six-month courses are federally funded and free to students, who must have a least a two-year degree and experience working in information technology or health care. Leventhal said students have ranged from their mid20s to mid60s, from having a 2-year degree to having a PhD.

The final of four federally funded courses is slated to begin in October. Applications are being accepted until Sept. 19. Even before the applications were available, Leventhal had a list of 75 students interested in the course, which has room for about 50.

Capital is seeking a state grant to develop certificate and degree programs in health IT, along with Norwestern Community College, Norwalk Community College, Charter Oak State College, and Eastern Connecticut State University.

Adam Greenberg

Adam Greenberg lectures on the usability of electronic records systems

Brady said the hospital association is eager to work with Capital and colleges that are looking to offer the program. “It can only help,” he said.

The course Michaelson is taking is for employees of Hartford Health Care, which includes Hartford Hospital, Windham Hospital and MidState Medical Center. The others have included a mix of people who are looking for work and those who have jobs.

One is Nelida Arroyo, who works as an administrative assistant at Hartford Hospital’s occupational health services and takes the course at nights. She said the material she’s learning will likely be required in her job in the future. Knowing it would allow her to work in any health care office setting, she said.

“To be able to just go anywhere and say, ‘I have this experience, or I’ve taken classes on this, or I’m educated on this,’ it’s great,” she said. “It’s more for job security than anything.

McAward worked for years in data processing, most recently for ING, before being laid off in 2009. She worked for the Census until last August.

In college, she worked on a nursing unit, and after she graduated, she worked as a unit manager, handling all the non-nursing functions. “I always enjoyed working in a hospital,” she said. “When this came up, I said, ‘You know what? I think that I would really enjoy getting back to the hospital.’”

McAward raves about the program and the chance to update her skills. Her expertise is in mainframe systems – not exactly the latest technology.

“Because so many people have been laid off, employers can be very, very stringent about the type of technological background they would like you to have,” she said. “And mainframe is not high on anybody’s list.”

She’s heard that health IT is a promising field for finding a job. “I hope that’s accurate,” she said.

Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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