Federal Health IT Aid Offers Rural U.S. Job Gains

August 13, 2013 in Top News, U.S. News

A doctor looks at medical images

A doctor looks at medical images on a computer. Source: NIBIB.

Representatives of the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, and Education have teamed up to work on a pilot initiative to expand support for health information technology infrastructure and workforce needs. Operating under the umbrella of the White House Rural Council, the inter-agency effort focuses on improving HealthIT for Critical Access Hospitals and other small rural hospitals. Leaders of the effort expect significant employment opportunities to result from HealthIT investments in rural communities.

Federal targeting of HealthIT as a jobs engine will depend significantly on what happens in federal education budgeting. President Barack Obama’s budget proposal for education in fiscal year 2014 calls for a doubling of funding for career and technical education, and for an increase in public-private collaboration. Two of the 16 career clusters recognized by the Department of Education are Health Sciences and Information Technology. Conceivably, projects to increase skilled manpower for HealthIT in rural areas could draw from either or both categories.

In 2010, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology awarded almost $118 million in funding to begin development of a “suite” of HealthIT Workforce Development programs specifically to train a new workforce of skilled health IT professionals. This funding also provided for development of relevant curricula and instructional materials for HealthIT workforce training at the community college level nationwide.

As of June this year, over 18 thousand professionals have been trained through the Community College Consortia Program and another 1,200  have been trained through the university-based training program.

Education Department writer John White reports, “rural communities are uniquely positioned to benefit from the adoption and use of health IT, including electronic health record technology (EHR) and telehealth. For example, the field of health IT presents new opportunities for career advancement for rural residents who want to stay in their communities and not move to urban areas.”

Nationally health care is migrating rapidly away from paper-based systems entirely and adopting digital-only systems. This trend especially challenges many rural communities. In Mississippi , as in many largely rural states, technological changes bring questions about funding infrastructure and training needs.

Much of the Federal effort comes down to reaching out directly in the field to provide information for states having significant rural health service needs. In July the inter-agency Rural Council team organized a workshop in Mississippi for example, drawing together representatives of 23 critical access hospitals and rural hospitals, and 31 rural health clinics. This pilot project was designed to develop best practices to enable rural, persistent poverty communities to leverage the full range of public and private sector resources currently available through federally sponsored partnerships. Among partners at the Mississippi workshop were the Mississippi Hospital Association, the Foundation for the Mid-South, and the Mississippi State Office of Rural Health.

Telehealth is a major needs area. In Mississippi over 60 percent of these rural safety net hospitals surveyed in the pilot project reported needing better access to broadband connectivity in support of administrative operations and clinical services. Progress on similar projects is ongoing in at least four other states, where telehealth also is expected to prove a high priority need for rural health facilities.

Budget proposals reflect a prioritization for HealthIT investments in rural America. Considerable work already is being accomplished to this end. If the budget process moves forward, innumerable job and career opportunities could open up in many of the nation’s most impoverished rural areas.