What makes an IT Professional?

Someone recently shared with me a discussion on the merits of certification as an indicator of expertise in healthcare IT. At the end of this month I’ll be finishing up a stint as a volunteer on the committee that administers the CPHIMS certification, so it’s a topic that interests me a lot- and one on which I have a pretty unique perspective.

It got me thinking about how we in healthcare IT identify ourselves and our colleagues as professionals. Do you get to be one because you call yourself one?

This is the first of two or three postings I plan over the next few days that will be musings on the subject.

I’m not going to link to the discussion that started me down this road for a couple of reasons…

One is that the opinions expressed weren’t very well informed, so as far as I’m concerned they don’t add much to the discussion. Plus, I’m really not interested in inflating the guy’s readership statistics. (If you’re curious, or just believe that you deserve punishment for sins committed in a past life, google a set of terms like “emr physician paranoia hubris” and it should come right up…)

The other point is that my main objective isn’t to play Alexander and Kilpatrick with some other blogger. Instead, I’d like to get people inside healthcare IT talking about our profession and about what credentials ARE important. How can we validate that we have, or the person we’re looking to hire has, the basic level of knowledge needed for the job?

Let’s start with the question of formal education.

My generation had very limited opportunity to study rigorous and relevant coursework related to IT in any flavor. The generation we learned from had virtually no opportunity whatsoever. (One of my mentors was a CPA by training.)

We are probably the last of the “accidental” IT professionals. My path in life took me from liberal arts (psychology, biology, English), to working for a medical practice, to managing a medical facility, and finally to IT. Since getting there, it’s continued to be a daily education- formally and informally- for the past 18 years.

Once I hit IT and found that I had an aptitude for it, I used to think “Boy, what could I have done if I’d taken just one computer course as an undergraduate? Then I would have recognized the direction my life should take.”

But then one day I heard a commercial where IBM was touting their introduction of the Personal Computer- in 1980. I graduated from college in 1979.

Had I come out of college as computer-boy- armed to the hilt with knowledge of COBOL and Fortran- I would have immediately seen the whole world change under my feet. I’d like to think I would have adapted, but…

About now is where you might expect the old guy to extol his lack of formal training and to decry the trend to require it of the young. Don’t hold your breath.

In fact, I’d love to be able to establish relationships with my local universities that would allow us to share our experience with their students and hire graduates that are already familiar with our industry. Instead, the best we can hope for is Computer Science graduates with strong backgrounds in theory and mathematics or MIS graduates with knowledge of computer applications in a general business environment.

The last time I had an important analyst position to fill, I thought that I’d shop around for schools with programs that taught what my people really needed: computer skills like database management and basic programming, business skills like financial and project management, medical skills like terminology and anatomy, and analytical skills like statistics. Build all that on the foundation of an understanding of the healthcare IT environment in general.

There are programs that sound promising. AMIA has a site that lists more than 80 institutions with programs in “medical, nursing, and health care informatics”. But when you start digging and looking at curricula, most are concentrations in medical records, or research.

There are some- Northeastern in Boston is one- with programs that sound like the one I described. If you know of others that you can recommend, please share them. (Not many of Boston’s best are looking to move to southeastern Ohio.)

The prognosticators suggest a booming job market in healthcare IT over the next few years. You don’t need a crystal ball to see that the confluence of an aging and entitled population, a shortage of healthcare workers, downward pressure on revenues, all in an industry that is late to the game when it comes to building efficiency with IT, makes for what might be a perfect storm of need for knowledgeable IT people.

Who’s going to meet that need?

There’s too much uninformed sentiment that it’s nothing to worry about- after all the generation presently coming of age has a degree of computer literacy that we couldn’t imagine a few years ago, right? Well, I’m not sure that I’m comfortable depending on my neighbor’s kid (or mine) to bail the US healthcare industry out of the coming crisis on the basis of their lifelong experience with Mario and ICQ.

If we want to leave healthcare better than we found it, if we want credibility as we deal with those who define their worth by their credentials, and if we want that next generation of IT people to get beyond “nerd” and approach “professional”, then we better decide what the standards are and how we’re going to measure them.

More in the next few days. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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