Healthcare IT Staffing: Is There a Shortage, or Are You Losing to Competition?

Mar 30, 2023 3:36:04 PM · by David Kushan

Now it’s common knowledge that the healthcare industry is struggling with staffing shortages.

This issue has impacted its ability to meet the needs of patients across the country. It’s important to note that the causes of these shortages vary from function to function, and a nursing shortage, for instance, should not be treated the same as a similar drop among IT staff.

Here, I’ll explore the challenges faced by organizations when attempting to hire and retain expert healthcare IT staff. (And by “IT staff,” I’m referring to IT, informatics, and analytics professionals.)

If you were to ask most Americans with which occupations are health systems experiencing their greatest staffing challenges, they’d likely reply, “Healthcare professionals.”

Why would this group experience a labor shortage?

Because the crisis faced by healthcare systems is one that cuts across all of its disciplines, from nurse practitioners to physicians to physical therapists. However, for the past three years, that crisis has reached a critical juncture. Our health system is struggling to maintain patient-safety levels of quality healthcare workers due to a variety of factors: 

  • Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry already struggled with staffing shortages. In fact, industry-wide staffing shortages date back nearly a century.
  • Since COVID, a record number of healthcare professionals have left the industry due to burnout. In the face of staffing shortages, they had been asked to work longer hours in increasingly stressful environments. This is particularly relevant for nurse staffing professionals.
  • Add to long hours in increasingly stressful environments too many administrative tasks being assigned to too few people. In a recent survey, 60% of respondents called this the primary cause of their burnout.
  • As we face an aging population with a record number of Americans over the age of 65, more healthcare professionals will be required to provide their services than ever before.
  • A larger number of healthcare professionals are reaching retirement age themselves.
  • The industry has a growing inability to get enough people through the educational pipeline as quickly as they’re needed on the job.

A Different Kind of Issue in Healthcare

While these issues are not unique to nursing staff, they don’t speak to the specific staffing problems that occur when organizations attempt to hire and retain healthcare IT workers.

When looking at the healthcare industry, it’s important to recognize IT workers for the critical role they play in patient care: They’re the behind-the-scenes players who ensure that clinicians have the tools they need to operate at top levels.

From optimizing workflows to minimizing administrative responsibilities to analyzing EHR data, their contributions form the foundation of world-class healthcare for each and every patient.

Hiring and retaining this kind of talent presents a different set of issues from those impacting other occupations across the healthcare industry. Although vendor partners might provide staffing recommendations to support their tools, mandated staffing levels is a rarity.

Therefore, every IT department starts with a staffing blank slate. And although most IT departments can look similar across 80% of their staffing structure, the organizations that do best at winning the staffing game know not only how to attract, but also how to design the remaining 20%.

The issues facing healthcare IT, informatics, and analytics departments have been affected by a completely different set of factors, including:

  • Competing with other industries for some of the same talent.
  • New healthcare technology vendors, as well as nontraditional entrants into the market (Amazon, Walmart, CVS, etc.), are competing for their healthcare technology talent.
  • The evolution to WFX (work from anywhere) has caused organizations that once vied for talent solely with local competitors to engage with a larger field across the country.

Which IT Staffing Structure Is Right for You?

When determining IT staffing structures, department leaders look to their specific goals:

  1. Supporting existing structure.
  2. Managing the necessary ongoing modifications to their current environment.
  3. Implementing new technology. 

Their staffing needs will vary depending on their agenda.

With that said, let’s break down the three types of IT staffing structures:

  • Hiring and development of full-time employees. Leaders need to ask themselves what roles they’ll need on a full-time basis for the foreseeable future.
  • Acquisition of consultants and contractors as needed. What skills or roles will they need for upcoming projects or to temporarily support current or future applications?
  • Outsourcing specific functions. When ideal hiring goals are unattainable, leaders frequently turn to outsourcing for specific functions.

Every organization faces its own unique set of hiring and retention challenges, including varying budgets and local talent supply. 

Many organizations hire fully remote employees, which has expanded the candidate pool, but depending on salary budgets, some organizations have come to realize that they simply can’t compete with larger organizations that are doing the same thing.

In a perfect world, each organization would be able to hire the full-time staff they need, which would come in and perform the tasks they’ve been hired to complete with very little training. Then, when necessary, organizations would supplement their full-time employees with outside consultants or contractors for new projects operating on specific timeframes.

Hiring and Development of Full-Time Employees

Hiring and development of full-time employees can be broken down into three categories, each of which has a unique strategy and set of challenges.

  • Entry-level or junior positions: These individuals will be easier to hire, as the candidate pool is larger. This category can be given basic tasks that more experienced people would prefer not to do. But investments in training and development will be necessary before they can bring real value to the team.
  • Mid-level positions: With the right strategies, this group can be found relatively easily. The key is having a role that’s more appealing than what your competitors for the same talent are offering. There are mid-level employees who can come in and immediately perform necessary tasks, supporting and upgrading the current environment. (With the proper investment and retention strategies, entry- and mid-level people can become an organization’s impact players of the future.)
  • Senior-level or impact players: This is the most difficult group to hire, as these people generally have more options than those in the categories above. Not only do you need a position that’s competitively attractive, but you also need a strategy and process that will impress and compel these people to join your team. Very experienced performers can do what’s necessary on a day-to-day basis, but they also have the experience to help their department grow into the needs of the future.

Each of the three categories listed above represents a different target market and requires a unique strategy not only for attracting and hiring, but also for onboarding and training.

What you do to attract and hire entry-level candidates is far different, for instance, than what you do to hire senior-level candidates. But many organizations employ the same strategy across the board. 

Add to that, the markets for IT, analytics, and informatics have their own unique challenges, as noted above. As a result of these factors, a comprehensive talent-attraction strategy requires numerous different tactics. Unfortunately, most organizations use only a few antiquated tactics.

Augmenting Your Full-Time Staff

Once a strategy has been determined to recruit full-time staff, then another strategy — to find the right partner for consultants and contractors — can be put into place. In some instances, contractors will not be needed. In other cases, contractors may compose the majority of your team.

There are certainly going to be times when you’ll use contractors to augment your full-time staff. But according to Gartner, with skills and abilities turning over so frequently, it may be smarter to exclusively use contactors for certain positions. 

The first step in all of this is recognizing that we’re in a new era of talent attraction. Most organizations ignore this fact, and struggle to attract the right employees as a result. 

Make a decision: Will you train and develop? Or will you design a position that’ll attract the experienced person. You can no longer afford to be in between.

Healthcare IT


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