Good Jobs Await Us, If Health and Tech Sectors Can Work Together

Much has been made about waste in healthcare, with a new government report tallying $750 billion in unnecessary costs each year – enough to insure 150 million American workers.  The digitization of healthcare, from the introduction of electronic health records to the application of high tech data analytics to reveal patterns that can point to more effective treatments, is rapidly gaining ground as a force of change. Yet despite the economic opportunity this poses for our region, which is rich in both healthcare and technology talent and innovation, we may be forfeiting it to others.

While the Puget Sound region should stand to benefit through high paying jobs that blend the best of our healthcare and technology know-how, these two colossal segments of our local economy operate largely in adjoining, but walled, gardens. Now is the time to forge collaborations between the two to spur health IT leadership, entrepreneurship, and job growth.

As our nation begins to heal from years of recession, and new growth industries emerge, there is little doubt that these collaborations will occur – the question is whether it will be our region that seizes the moment and reaps the economic reward.  With healthcare as the fastest growing job market in the next decade, and 50,000 health IT jobs up for grabs in just the next two years, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the opportunity is substantial and immediate.

How ready is our region to take advantage? A recent report by the Technology Alliance [Correction 8 pm 10/9/12: An earlier version of this post cited the Washington Technology Industry Association] revealed that 45 percent, or 1.4 million, of Washington’s jobs are supported by that industry. Technology jobs, including those in healthcare technology, are good paying. Seattle is ranked second, behind only San Jose, in the average pay for information sector workers ($121,000). That is ahead of San Francisco, Washington D.C., New York, and Boston.

We know a lot of those jobs are right here in the Puget Sound region.  They are located beside a vibrant and diversified healthcare sector, which is touted by Mayor McGinn as employing 90,000 workers in Seattle alone. But all of those jobs don’t even begin to meet the new demand.

One problem we will have to face quickly is the shortage of skilled workers required by both industries. Washington-based employers are struggling to fill thousands of software and engineering jobs, even while our unemployment rate continues to stagnate.

My company wrestles with this problem every day. We serve health insurance companies and hospitals nationwide that are ramping up technology spending at a blistering pace to remain competitive, and to meet deadlines associated with federal mandates. For example, the U.S. government just set a new deadline of October 1, 2014 for all healthcare organizations to begin using a new, more descriptive set of codes for diagnoses and treatments. The intent is to improve the quality of information that is used for billing, quality assurance, and health research.

Whereas the codes in use for the past 30 years number around 18,000, the new set is far more complex at roughly 140,000 codes. This change requires a significant and urgent investment in updates to existing IT systems and testing software, plus lots of health worker retraining so that we don’t have a Y2K type of problem when the deadline arrives.

Despite the huge demand for our services nationwide, we must compete fiercely with our neighbors to recruit talent to our corporate headquarters in Bellevue. And we are not alone. Hospitals, physician groups, health plans, and technology companies throughout the region are actively seeking IT workers to usher them into a new era of technology-infused healthcare.

We can overcome this problem and turn it into an economic growth opportunity by embracing our potential to become a world leader in health IT, just as we have done in aerospace and software, and as we are doing in global health and biotech. Rather than competing against one another for talent, we should develop talent in-state through our higher education system while using our reputation as a leader to attract even more skilled workers to relocate here.

There are some pockets of progress. Our state was one of the first to submit a blueprint for a health information exchange – an indication that healthcare and technology interests from the public and private sector are finding ways to work together. Likewise, the Life Science Informatics Center at Bellevue College has the distinction of being chosen to lead health IT workforce development efforts across a 10-state region in the West, focused on rapid training programs that can put skilled workers into the field within six months.

These are the kinds of initiatives we need to foster and support to establish our region as a world leader in health IT. If we set our sights on claiming this reputation for ourselves, we will naturally attract the talent we all need to fill job vacancies throughout the healthcare and technology segments of our local economy, while building up our region’s capacity to meet the enormous future demand, and sizable job creation opportunity, in the combined health IT sector.

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