Health-care sector seeks IT talent transplant

Eastman Kodak Co.,’s Health Group is looking to fill about 20 new software engineering positions at its Radiology Information System research and development facility in Summerside, P.E.I. Mike Jackman, general manager of health care information solutions at Kodak, said the expansion results from 13- to 16-per-cent annual growth in the market for information technology in the health-care sector.

Kodak is expanding operations in P.E.I. partly because the company can find the skills it needs there. People with information technology skills and a knowledge of health care are very much in demand, Jackman said. Kodak’s Summerside location, the result of an acquisition, gave the company access to a capable pool of programmers.

“The supply is short,” Jackman says, “and that’s why I look for opportunities like what I found in Prince Edward Island.”

Jackman isn’t the only one hunting for people qualified to implement IT in health care.

In 2006, Toronto-based recruiting firm CNC Global Ltd. saw a 20-per-cent increase in the number of health-care-related IT job openings its clients wanted to fill. That demand was consistent across the country, said Chris Drummond, vice-president of marketing at CNC Global.

The Ontario government set up the Smart Systems for Health Agency (SSHA) in 2003 to provide IT and networking services to the province’s health-care sector. As SSHA’s chief technical officer, Linda Weaver knows only too well how scarce qualified health-care IT workers are.

“We are struggling,” Weaver said. “Smart Systems is, pretty much all of our clients are struggling and pretty much all of the vendors are.”

COACH, Canada’s Health Informatics Association, has forecast a shortage of about 2,500 IT people in the health-care field, noted Paul Swinwood, president of the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), an Ottawa-based organization focused on human resources issues – and “I believe they’re missing a zero.”

Swinwood said he foresees continued rapid growth in the health-care sector’s use of technology, and expects relevant skills to be scarce as a result.

“The health-care sector is probably one of the last to effectively adopt IT as a productivity tool,” said Swinwood, “but they are probably going to have to be one of the most effective at using IT.”

Weaver said it’s not helping that fewer young people are studying information technology, a fact she blamed on the perception that jobs in the sector are being outsourced overseas and opportunities here are drying up.

“We spend a lot of time at the high schools and universities, trying to make them understand this is a growing area,” Weaver said. In fact, after talking to Computing Canada she was on her way to speak to a group of electrical engineering students about the opportunities in health-care IT.

Weaver advised students interested in the field to develop solid technical skills and look for health-related project work.

She said one prerequisite for a successful IT career in health care is being able to deal with complexity. Hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices, all with different technology, are being linked, she said, and making this work can be a bigger challenge than managing a relatively homogenous corporate network. They also need to understand the unique terminology of the health-care field, Weaver said.

Drummond said his clients are looking for business or functional expertise combined with knowledge of highly specialized technology like Health Level 7, a standard for health-care-related data exchange.

Swinwood said IT workers in the health-care field need a grounding in privacy and security, data warehousing and the storage of health records.

While many of the same skills apply to health care as to other IT jobs, said Jackman, “there is domain expertise that takes six to 12 months – maybe longer in some cases – to master.”

The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology is exploring the possibility of offering an IT training program focused on health care, said Garry Bridge, dean of NAIT’s School of Applied Media and Information Technology. It would augment NAIT’s existing IT program with about courses focused on the specific needs of health care, Bridge said.

Computer services firms such as CGI Group Inc. and Sierra Systems Group Inc. hire many NAIT graduates for contracts in the health-care field, Bridge said, so “there is a reasonable demonstration of need there.” But the program is in a “holding pattern” awaiting provincial funding.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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