Christian Renaux used to work as a registered nurse at Brockton Hospital, the largest hospital in the 100,000-resident Massachusetts city of Brockton.
Now he has a leadership role at the hospital in the area of electronic health records — an advance seen by the government and health-care industry as crucial to lowering the cost and improving the quality of health care.
In the roughly nine years between stints at the hospital, now known as Signature Healthcare Brockton Hospital, Renaux gained expertise in electronic health records technology while working at a Massachusetts vendor for EHR systems, Westwood-based Medical Information Technology Inc. (MediTech).
Subsequently he worked at several Massachusetts hospitals, where he and others with his qualifications are in high demand.
“There’s a very small group of people” who fall into this category, Renaux said. As evidence: while working at Quincy Medical Center on electronic health records, he was recruited to work at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. From there he was recruited by Brockton Hospital, where he started working as clinical applications director in February 2010. The 253-bed hospital employs 11 people strictly for the ongoing work related to electronic health records, Renaux said.
The importance of electronic health records is only expected to grow, as hospitals and doctor offices are required to collect data to demonstrate their quality, safety and efficiency to the public, government and insurance companies.
In tandem, the importance of workers that can support and maintain the systems — while also knowing the clinical world — is growing as well.
“There’s going to be a huge competition for these people going forward,” said Dr. Paul Pettinato, chief medical information officer at Brockton Hospital.
Ray Campbell, executive director of the Massachusetts Health Data Consortium, agreed that combining health care and IT expertise for the purposes of supporting an EHR system is “not a skill set that exists in abundance.”
“The most desirable candidates are people that actually know IT in a health-care setting,” he said.
Campbell said he’s witnessed a lot of anxiety among health-care organizations — and even EHR system vendors — about staffing issues related to EHRs. But it’s not so much about whether or not there will be enough qualified people out there, he said.
“A lot of the anxiety that I’ve heard from people wasn’t, ‘Is there anyone out there?’” Campbell said. “It’s more about the food chain. There’s a pecking order that happens in the health-care space.”
An EHR vendor, for instance, might make a hire and put a lot of money into training that person on their system — only to see that employee lured away by a hospital that uses the vendor’s system, according to Campbell. “After you’ve done that for a year, you are highly attractive to a community hospital,” he said.
Renaux said all of the hospitals he’s worked at as an EHR specialist have used systems supplied by MediTech, his former employer. While he wasn’t recruited from MediTech to work with EHRs in a hospital (he left to return to nursing), Renaux can see why this happens. There is no college or independent program that trains people to specialize on EHRs, or health IT in general; “most clinicians just kind of fall into the position,” he said.
But the anxiety isn’t restricted to EHR vendors. After hiring EHR specialists, “community hospitals start to worry they will lose their talent to a Partners or a CareGroup,” Campbell said.
There isn’t much anxiety about this at one of the major EHR vendors, however, according to its CEO. Girish Kumar Navani — CEO and co-founder of Westborough-based eClinicalWorks LLC — said his company offers plenty of reasons for its fast-growing staff to remain and grow with the company.
For one, the company remains highly entrepreneurial, which workers should find more exciting than some of their other options, he said. “I would contend that this is a workplace people want to come to,” Navani said. The company also plans to complete its expanded, 100,000-square-foot headquarters in Westborough within two months, he said.
Customers of eClinicalWorks total more than 50,000 providers and 225,000 medical professionals in all 50 states, the company said, including the six Massachusetts hospitals in the Caritas Christi Health Care System.
Hiring at the company has been aggressive in recent years, Navani said. The company’s Massachusetts staff has grown to 600, from 70 in 2004, and the company added 80 Massachusetts employees — and about 150 employees worldwide — in 2010 alone. In 2011, eClinicalWorks expects to hire another 100, with the majority of those in the Bay State, the company said.