Over the past two years, doctors' adoption of health IT doubled, according to a report that U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius released at the end of November. Despite that, Wanted Analytics says that there will be a shortfall of 50,000 in the health IT workforce over the next five years.

"We believe that's probably approaching 150,000 or more," says Norma Morganti, executive director of the Midwest Community College Health Information Technology Consortium, which consists of 17 member colleges across 10 states in the Midwest. The consortium hopes to quell any future workforce shortages in health IT and will use a $15 million grant over a two-year period to train students in managing electronic health record (EHR) systems.

"These are really rapidly transitioning areas within health care, and not only are hospitals [and] physician practices looking for these qualified individuals, but so are vendor organizations," Morganti says.

The consortium's goal is to train 5,400 individuals with previous medical or technical experience for six roles that support EHR systems, such as workflow designers, liaisons and trainers for nurses and doctors, and professionals that can install, implement and maintain EHR systems. As of late December -- the beginning of the second year of training -- community colleges in the consortium had enrolled more than 4,200 students, and more than 1,200 had actually completed the six-month training.

The community colleges are using a national curriculum developed by several universities -- Oregon Health and Science University, Duke, Columbia, Johns Hopkins and the University of Alabama at Birmingham -- to develop these training programs, Morganti says. That curriculum is complemented by online tools, including access to an EHR lab where students can complete assignments and get hands-on experience with real scenarios they may face with an EHR system. "We're doing a lot of innovative things in the online environment to help support those adult learners get through the curriculum quickly," Morganti says, "but with experiences that make them valuable to employers and stakeholders."

One successful graduate of the program is Geneva Foster. She completed her coursework at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) and was hired as a support technician at Ohio-based Summa Health System, which recently launched a new EHR system. Summa Health System Director of IT Brian Kundtz says that Foster acted as a super-user, demonstrating such proficiency that Summa expanded her role and responsibilities in mid-December. "I promoted Geneva into a full-time salary position on the team as my 'Meaningful Use Specialist,'" Kundtz says. "I think this shows that not only was she able to fulfill the needs of the position she was hired for, she soon demonstrated she could take on more, and once a position came available, it was an easy decision to move her forward."

Kundtz says that the program is a good introduction to the industry for someone with an interest, but added that it needs more details. "These students may not have even gotten past the HR screening for a health-care IT position in the past, but by completing this program and having employers aware of it, they can now at least get the interview," he says. "I now tell my HR department to look for this certification and bring those applicants forward for an interview."

Thus far, Foster is the only graduate that Kundtz has hired, though he ultimately interviewed five graduates for two open positions. "The issue I ran into wasn't their knowledge of the industry that the program provided, but rather their interviewing skills." Kundtz says he's continued working with the program at Tri-C and with the students to stress the importance of their soft skills in interviewing.

Tri-C officials are working to learn what other skills will make their graduates valuable to these employers. It has created an advisory board that's made up of hospitals, medical centers, other colleges and universities throughout the community, says Ronna McNair, director for Tri-C's health IT program. "We're working not only to build partnerships with them … We are working with them to provide opportunities for our students," like jobs and internships, she says. "We're finding that after the students go through the training, they really need some hands-on [experience], so we're trying to provide a framework so they can get that hands-on opportunity as well."

Once the two-year grant is gone, Morganti says all the colleges will continue to train students and sustain their growth in health IT. "Once the EHR systems are up and running, attaining this meaningful use of your EHR system will require other skill sets," like data analytics and managing patient care, she says. "Those in the health-care organizations will also need retraining opportunities to bring their skill sets up to using all of this electronic information exchanging. This is just the beginning."