Feb 21, 2012 (10:02 AM EST)
Health IT Leaders Biggest Worry: Finding Qualified Staff

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For the first time in more than a decade, healthcare CIOs did not name inadequate financial support as their top barrier to implementing IT, according to the annual Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) survey of hospital-based IT leaders. Instead, lack of staffing resources was the most significant roadblock, named by 21% of the 302 respondents.

Financial issues came in second, at 14%, slightly ahead of vendor inability to deliver a useful product, which 12% of CIOs said was their No. 1 barrier.

Kay Hix, vice president and CIO of Carillon Clinic in Roanoke, Va., noted that healthcare providers are competing against vendors and high-paying consulting firms for top health IT talent. "We're all trying to gravitate toward the same bucket of [staffing] resources," Hix said Tuesday morning at the 2012 HIMSS conference in Las Vegas.

HIMSS board chair Charlene Underwood, senior director of government and industry affairs for electronic health records (EHR) vendor Siemens Medical Solutions, agreed. "We are staffing up because customers have to meet Meaningful Use [of EHRs] and ICD-10 [coding requirements]," she said.

[ Converting to ICD-10 is important. Learn more: ICD-10 Conversion: Do Or Die. ]

Not surprisingly, a plurality of CIOs--38%--said that earning the federal incentive payments for achieving Meaningful Use was their top IT priority for the next two years, far outstripping any other option. Still, that was down from 49% a year ago, possibly reflecting the fact that some hospitals met the Stage 1 Meaningful Use requirements in 2011. Hix noted that her organization had to have its EHR fully operational by early 2010 in order to get to Meaningful Use a year later.

About 30% of respondents said their organizations had already attested to Stage 1 Meaningful Use or had planned on doing so before the end of 2011; HIMSS conducted the survey in December and January. Almost half expect to attest this year, leaving less than a quarter that do not plan on achieving Stage 1 Meaningful Use until 2013 or later.

"Federal incentives continue to drive IT decisions at healthcare organizations," said Jennifer Horowitz, director of research at HIMSS Analytics, the research arm of the health IT trade group.

Hospitals fully expect their hard work and additional costs associated with meeting Meaningful Use requirements to pay off. In fact, not a single survey participant anticipated zero return on their investment, while 13% said they expected to realize returns of $10 million or more. While 20% said their ROI will be less than $2 million, nearly half pegged their eventual financial gain at $2 million to $7 million.

"We didn't get into this just to meet the federal requirements," said Todd Richardson, CIO of Deaconess Health System in Evansville, Ind., one of just 65 hospitals in the nation to reach Stage 7--the highest level--on the HIMSS Analytics EMR Adoption Model as of November. Instead, the organization saw its EHR as a path to safer, more efficient care, "The Meaningful Use dollars are just gravy," Richardson said.

Interestingly, particularly in the wake of last week's news that the federal government would push back the deadline for providers to switch to ICD-10 coding, 89% of survey respondents said they would be ready by the original Oct. 1, 2013, compliance date.

HIMSS and other health IT advocacy groups have urged their members to keep moving forward on ICD-10 preparedness. HIMSS CEO H. Stephen Lieber said that his reading of the announcement by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius suggested that federal officials were prepared to offer a delay only to "certain" providers. Physician practices are far behind hospitals in terms of ICD-10 readiness, he noted.

Healthcare providers must collect all sorts of performance data to meet emerging standards. The new Pay For Performance issue of InformationWeek Healthcare delves into the huge task ahead. Also in this issue: Why personal health records have flopped. (Free registration required.)