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Getting training down to a science

The medical and scientific fields have been experiencing a technology boom and a skills shortage. That’s the kind of combination that has IT job seekers spiffing up their résumés and going for new certifications.

Let’s be honest. The technology field is not the stretch of daisies it once was for job seekers, and long gone are those halcyon days of stock options on a silver platter, when IT candidates were royalty. Many in the tech biz have even considered fleeing the trade, seeking refuge in other professions that don’t require certifications, late-night programming sessions, or frequent résumé updates.

Before becoming a union carpenter, however, you may want to look at less-explored IT avenues that are due for a boom. One of the largest of these is the healthcare field, which was so far behind in technology progress that it now needs IT professionals just to play catch-up. Scientific industries, too, have become more reliant on computer know-how to keep the innovation cranking.

As these fields become more sophisticated, requiring better technology and the personnel to run it, some IT professionals may find that the route to a robust career isn’t through gaming, commercial enterprises, or even government agencies, but through the hallways of medical and scientific firms. Although it might mean a bit more training to understand the intricacies of how these firms work, the reward may be a steady paycheck after the classes are done.

Powering up

Given the number of machines that go bing in hospitals and doctor’s offices nationwide, one would think that behind all that technology lies slam-bang computing power that would put most high-tech companies to shame. Yet healthcare has been lagging behind other fields for years, weighed down by privacy concerns, slow management speed, and archaic, paper-based systems.

Anyone who’s been to a doctor’s office and seen the rolling file cabinets of patient records can understand the monumental task that lies ahead for those trying to get healthcare to go electronic. But where there are such large tasks, there’s a demand for professionals willing to put in the time and effort.

“As more computer programs are getting developed for medical, there’s a bigger need for IT people who are educated about medical issues,” says Jarod Martin, IT program director at Tucson, Ariz.-based PMI, a medical and technology training school.

The school, which has campuses in seven other cities and is part of Pima Medical Institute, saw such a need for IT workers that it started the technology program as a way to fill positions in healthcare that were just being created. Martin notes that entry-level slots for support technicians are the most numerous, but that with new technology coming in, the necessity for technologists reaches all levels.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) also affects medical tech needs. Through the act, the government has mandated healthcare organizations to get wired and protect patient privacy. Though the act was passed a long time ago, health agencies had until April of this year to be compliant–an ongoing challenge for all providers of health-related products and services. Beyond just the basics of bringing records online, HIPAA also affects a wide array of practices within the medical community, ushering in new technology like smart cards, wireless networks, biometrics, digital signatures, and disaster recovery procedures and technologies.

Martin says, “Every business requires people who are savvy about technology, because that’s part of every business area. But in the healthcare arena, the need is growing even more for IT people who have at least a basic understanding about healthcare.”

As the medical field gets more spiffed up, the scientific industry is on a parallel path, requiring IT professionals who can understand scientific concepts, yet know about disk sanitization, intrusion detection, virtual private networks, encryption, and a few hundred other technology directions. Engineering and science companies that produce hardware and software like environmental systems, law enforcement tools, and even the latest meteorological doo-dads have all come to depend on complex computing systems and networks that must be built and maintained to keep the innovation humming.

Although some IT professionals might look at an engineering or medical firm and think the company deals with technology at a level beyond what they’re used to, keep in mind that they have the same kind of system needs, network issues, and security concerns that plague companies in other industries. Sometimes, gaining just a smattering of scientific or medical know-how is enough to squeeze into this particular employment niche.

Lesson plan

Often, gearing up for a switch to medical and scientific employment requires just a love of research about a particular company’s expertise, be it governmental contracts for nuclear waste removal or creation of handheld lasers, and a reflection of that new education in a cover letter. Other times, a willingness to learn on the job is enough for some employers.

For those really looking to make the permanent jump, however, there are certifications and degree programs that can help an IT professional get up to speed, especially for healthcare-related topics.

“It’s a strong field to be in, and there are many jobs in it, if you have the skills,” says Harry Rhodes, director of Health Information Management services for the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA). He adds, “You hear a lot of negative comments that healthcare is lagging behind other industries, but we’re finally getting the message, and looking for talented people. Also, most of the IT solutions in the past weren’t tailored to healthcare, but since they’re starting to be now, it’s good for an IT professional to know about healthcare and get into the field.”

To facilitate the bridge between IT and healthcare, the AHIMA has created a batch of eight certifications (see sidebar) that help tech-savvy individuals become med-smart as well. The association is keen to help those who want to enter the field, and such enthusiasm is reflected in the AHIMA’s Web site, which includes not only a list of 150 degree programs, but also certification information, accredited schools, relevant state associations, and discussion groups.

The certifications and degree courses vary in terms of IT and healthcare mix, from administration positions, to medical coding, to healthcare security. Those looking to find an entry-level job that has a technological aspect may want to go for the Certified Coding Associate, which tests for knowledge of medical terminology, and coding procedure. Those with a bit more IT experience under the belt should consider the certification in healthcare privacy and security, which covers the complexity of issues that healthcare organizations face when trying to keep patient information locked down tight.

The degree programs and technical training offered by places like PMI give IT professionals a solid base in understanding medical and scientific issues, frequently expanding beyond the scope of how-to technical information and into the realm of larger issues like ethics, privacy, and administration.

On-the-job training

“I’ve noticed that people who come out of the degree programs always seem to get a job in no time,” Rhodes says. “There’s definitely a need for people that can walk on both sides of the street, in healthcare and IT.”

Rhodes adds that the credentials have become very popular in the last few years, for students and healthcare companies alike. He says, “We’ve had a very positive reaction from employers, because it’s such a tight job market. If they have two candidates with the same level of experience, they know to go with the one who has demonstrated through an exam that they have a certain knowledge level.”

By going from IT into healthcare or science, those fields also benefit from the breadth of previous experience that a candidate has had. Many companies appreciate the tech acumen that a newly trained employee may demonstrate. Dora Vell, a partner in the international technology practice of Chicago-based executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, describes an IT executive who left a communications company to join a biotech firm, and wowed his new bosses.

She says, “The technology bridges and correlations between communications and biotech were tremendous. He’s bringing in all the knowledge of a different field to this new field, to the benefit of the individual, the company, and the industry.”

There’s also the opportunity to bring basic technological background to an industry that needs it, and the ability to combine training with past experience is an especially welcome one in the healthcare and scientific fields.

“It’s great to find people who can communicate about technical topics,” says Dana Deasy, CIO of Siemens, “That’s something that we see is lacking, especially in the boardroom. We find it’s very hard to get people who are technically competent and can communicate clearly to non-technical executives.”

Taking the plunge

If you decide to go the healthcare and scientific training route, be aware that it’s not all smooth sailing through classes and that pleasant ka-ching of a steady paycheck right afterward. Like any transition, the move from one field to another, even when doing the same types of tasks, requires some patience.

Vell says that it may be difficult right now for some IT professionals to even consider another change in fields, after the ebb and flow of the economy in the past few years.

She says, “I think the biggest challenge is the hangover from the boom, it leads people to being very deflated. I see a lot of absolutely excellent talent that cannot mentally break away from the disappointment of all the rejection.” Despite the sometimes bleak employment scene, and the temptation to simply chuck it all and live in your parents’ basement until 2010 rolls around, changing fields could prove to put that spark back into technology for you. It may also allow for a chance to see a bigger world than the one you’re leaving behind.

“Think of changing fields as cross-pollination,” Vell says. “Getting healthcare or scientific training will give you a different perspective, and help you expand as an individual. Adapting to a different industry in a different context may be painful, but it is also an amazing learning experience.”

AHIMA certifications

In order to make sure that techies know their stuff, the AHIMA has created a series of certifications:

Certified Coding Associate (CCA): An entry-level certification. Medical coders make sure that all medical procedures are tagged with the appropriate standard codes that allow for accurate billing and proper insurance reimbursement.

Certified Coding Specialist (CCS): As well as coding expertise, this cert tests for knowledge of medical terminology, disease processes, and pharmacology.

Certified Coding Specialist–Physician-based (CCS-P): For coding practitioners with experience in physician-based setting such as doctors’ offices, group practices, multi-specialty clinics, or specialty centers. The AHIMA notes that the employment outlook for this specialty looks very favorable, given the growth of managed care.

Certified in Healthcare Privacy (CHP): Tests for advanced competency in designing, implementing, and administering comprehensive privacy protection programs in all types of healthcare organizations. Those who are CHP-focused must maintain the credential over time with continuing education.

Certified in Healthcare Security (CHS): Much like the CHP, but for security. Also requires continuing education to keep the cert shiny and bright.

Certified in Healthcare Privacy and Security (CHPS): If you can’t decide between privacy and security, you can choose both with this certification.

Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA): Determines expertise in the collection, interpretation, and analysis of patient data, as well as managerial skills. RHIAs interact with all levels of an organization–clinical, financial, and administrative.

Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT): For those who ensure the quality of medical records by verifying their completeness, accuracy, and proper entry into computer systems. RHITs may also use computer applications to assemble and analyze patient data for the purpose of improving patient care or controlling costs.

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