Healthcare IT on the Rise

With $20 billion in stimulus funding, the job opportunities are limitless

A high school fascination with technology led Michael Mathias into a fast-paced, fast-growing career in information technology. He soaked up everything he could learn about the field, majoring in computer science at Long Island University and tailoring his coursework around market demands. After college, he took a job as an application programmer for Prudential Inc., launching a tech career that has spanned nearly 30 years. Over the past three decades, Mathias, 52, has seen the industry change dramatically—from punch cards to Wi-Fi—as he worked in an array of industries, including financial services, telecom, and publishing. As chief technology officer for healthcare insurer Aetna Inc., Mathias has now found a career sweet spot by operating in two growth sectors: healthcare and technology.

Mathias and his team of 155 employees design and build the technological infrastructure that allows Aetna to meet its business goals. He was instrumental in helping develop the system that resulted in Collaborative Care Solution, the partnership between Aetna’s ActiveHealth Management unit and IBM. The system aims to reduce medical mistakes and unnecessary treatments. It uses advanced analytics software to combine information from electronic medical records, claims, medication, and lab data with ActiveHealth’s CareEngine—Aetna’s personal health record that lets members make their health information available to doctors online—and delivers it through an IBM cloud computing platform. The platform allows the delivery of shared resources, software, and information to computers and other devices on demand. On Aetna’s end, Mathias is leading the architectural and technical direction for the partnership. Aetna and other health benefit providers also offer iPhone applications that enable patients to make appointments, find doctors, and check claims.

Career opportunities will be driven, in part, by the development of new products and apps as well as how people consume information through mobile phones and hand-held devices. Perhaps one of the most powerful influencers in healthcare IT, however, is the new healthcare reform law, which encourages the use of technology in an effort to reduce costs and improve medical care. In addition, the 2009 stimulus package provided $20 billion in healthcare information technology funding to encourage doctors and hospitals to install electronic medical records systems by 2014.

The new field of medical informatics will expand as healthcare benefit companies, medical device makers, hospitals, clinics, pharmaceutical firms, and other entities hire professionals who understand the application of technology to help doctors and patients gain vital information in a more efficient and cost-effective manner. Colleges, including Drexel University and Northwestern University, are jumping on the trend by offering certificate and degree programs. Jobs in the arena include: database administrators, project designers, computer programmers, researchers, and systems analysts.

“The ‘consumerization’ of the healthcare space with reform legislation is going to drive a whole different dynamic in this industry,” Mathias says. “We’re going to need to bring products and services to the marketplace and to the individual consumer at a greater and faster rate. That’s going to open up a lot of technology channels and avenues.”

The medical records and health information technology arena is expected to grow by 20% through 2018, “much faster than the average [rate] for all occupations,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So professionals with a strong understanding of technology and computer software will be in great demand. “The push to bridge technology and healthcare is only going to intensify,” says Joe Watson, author of Where The Jobs Are Now: The Fastest-Growing Industries and How To Break Into Them (McGraw-Hill; $18.95).  He cites the aging population as a major factor.

Watson also notes the incredible inefficiencies of storing vast quantities of health information on paper that will require the development of systems to scan, store and manage documents. “When you think about moving toward medical IT, you think about all those doctor’s offices in the country that need to install some level of system and software to make that happen—and a large amount of that work hasn’t happened yet.”

H. James Dallas, senior vice president for quality and operations at medical device maker Medtronic Inc., recommends obtaining a traditional IT degree or operations degree to enter the IT field. Dallas, one of black enterprise’s 100 Most Powerful Executives in Corporate America, also recommends studying for certifications on several software platforms. “The likelihood of working on one particular application is low throughout a person’s career,” he says. “You know how quickly technology can change, so I advise people to get certified on multiple technologies.”

He adds: “Healthcare touches everyone, from prevention and detection to treatment and management. All 300 million people in the United States and 6 billion around the world are going to fall into one of those categories, and there are technologies that are IT-enabled in healthcare that are targeted to each one of those segments.”

Good oral and written skills are also important, Dallas says. “The ability to effectively communicate the value of technology to nontechnical people is a top skill—in addition to the ability to get things done—that separates those who move up in the organization and take on broader leadership roles and those who don’t.”

Dallas maintains that a focus on quality is essential. “As you look forward, the way companies are going to be able to differentiate products and services from everybody else’s [will be] through their quality, customer care, and the talent they’re able to attract and develop within their organizations.”

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