Filling the Skills Gap: Health Care Looks for More Data Workers

Registered nurse JoAnn Brand (L) examines Sham Tavakoli at the Lifelong Medical Marin Adult Day Health Care Center.
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Registered nurse JoAnn Brand (L) examines Sham Tavakoli at the Lifelong Medical Marin Adult Day Health Care Center.

It may not be long before Explorys outgrows the loft space at its Cleveland offices. The health-care big data firm has doubled its staff to 100 in the last year.

"We've done very well at attracting great talent," said Steve McHale, co-founder and CEO of Explorys.

McHale is thinking about starting a second office, as Explorys' client list has grown more than two-fold to 200 hospitals and more than a dozen health systems. He's not worried about finding talent.

"Frankly, it's not been a big path of resistance for us," he admitted. But Explorys may be an anomaly.

The competition for workers with high-tech analytics skills has been explosive over the last five years. It has accelerated partly because of new digital billing and patient-monitoring requirements for hospitals, doctors and physician groups under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

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New research from Burning Glass found that while total online job postings have grown a tepid 6 percent since 2007, and overall health care sector posting growth has actually slowed to just 5 percent, health-care informatics job listings have surged more than 50 percent. Among the job descriptions seeing the biggest surge in demand are jobs for clinical application developer, which are up 232 percent in the last five years, and coding compliance and review officers, which have nearly doubled.

At the same time, consultants from PwC found two-thirds of health-care executives they surveyed said they're experiencing IT staff shortages, as they roll out new technology in their organizations.

"Fifty to sixty percent of those CEOs are saying they're concerned that they don't have the skills required to execute the strategy that they just created," said Daniel Garrett, PwC Healthcare IT Practice Leader. "That's, to me, a signal that there's a real issue here."

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A McKinsey & Co. study predicted the U.S. could see a shortage of two million health-care analytics workers by 2018. The firm's Healthcare Information Technology practice leader Steve Van Kuiken said health-care executives are facing some of the same issues faced by other industry leaders during the tech boom in the late 1990s.

"It's not a skill-set they're used to buying or hiring, and frankly they're competing with companies and start-ups for this talent, so they're not used to compensating it the right way," he said. "What we tell them is—you've got to think about a build-and-buy strategy for this talent."

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Over the last two years, health services firms have been buying the big data talent that they needed. In December, McKessonacquired population health specialty firm MedVentive, for an undisclosed sum.

In January, UnitedHealth Group subsidiary Optum bought clinical bench-marking firm Humedica, after having acquired customer analytics powerhouse Connextions in 2011.

McKinsey's Van Kuiken said insurers, in particular, have looked to acquisitions to get the technology muscle they'll need to sell insurance on the state-based health insurance exchanges ahead of the rollout of Obamacare.

"It creates a whole new set of demand around understanding consumer behavior, creating an infrastructure around how you treat consumers, both online and call centers," van Kuiken said. "And also modeling and predicting consumer purchase patterns."

Could Explorys, with its growing network of clients be next for an acquisition? CEO Steve McHale doesn't rule it out. "There's organizations we could combine with that would scale," he admitted. "Others that wouldn't."

Either way, he's committed to working with others in the industry to nurture and help to develop new talent.

"We're involved in university programs that are forming both undergraduate and graduate informatics programs at a rapid rate," he said. "We're helping to fuel the industry around those kinds of resources."

—By Bertha Coombs. Follow her on Twitter: @coombscnbc.

(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Explorys as a Cincinnati firm. It currently has offices in Cleveland.)