Change in Code Procedure Could Stretch Health Care IT Staffs

By Andrea Siedsma

Mar. 20, 2012

Update: The Health and Human Services Department has extended the implementation deadline to Oct. 1, 2014.

Health care information technology departments already taxed by the complex transition from paper to electronic records facing the implementation of a new level of patient classification codes.

Labeled the International Statistical Classification of Diseases, or ICD, U.S. health care organizations must transition from ICD-9 to ICD-10 code sets to accommodate codes for new diseases and procedures. Though the deadline has been extended by a year to Oct. 1, 2014, it still could present an IT staffing challenge for health care organizations.

Veronica Zaman, corporate vice president for human resources and training at Scripps Health in San Diego, likens the ICD-10 implementation and overall health care IT staffing to the industry’s chronic nursing shortages, where demand is high but supply is low.

Scripps Health, which has several hospitals and more than 13,000 employees across San Diego County, has been fairly successful in attracting the IT talent it needs, Zaman says. Scripps has created its own internal staffing department to recruit project managers and IT personnel.

Under Scripps Health’s ICD-10 training program, the organization’s staff—including coders, clinicians, physicians, billers and managers—will receive training before the extended deadline. Zaman says Scripps is evaluating how many full-time employees will be needed for the ICD-10 implementation.

“In order to accommodate the increased complexity and volume of ICD-10 codes, we will need to hire additional resources, so this does mean increased job opportunities,” Zaman says. “The skills needed to support correct use of ICD-10 codes are critical in that these codes impact reimbursement for care provided and therefore have impact on revenue potential.”

A recent study by Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society shows that nearly 90 percent of respondents plan to complete their conversion to the new federally mandated ICD-10 medical codes used to report medical diagnoses and in-patient procedures by the 2013 deadline. Two-thirds reported that implementing ICD-10 was the top area of focus for financial IT systems at their organization.

However, a lack of staffing resources also was cited as the most significant barrier to implementing the new codes, the organization’s survey shows. With soaring IT employment, finding skilled workers could present a serious challenge to health care organizations.

The need for IT professionals across all industries is evident by the fact that related jobs in the U.S. increased by 13,300 in January, to more than 4.1 million technology jobs, an all-time high according to a monthly index of IT jobs developed by the TechServe Alliance, an Alexandria, Virginia-based industry trade organization.

As the demand for IT professionals continues to rise, however, the available supply of skilled workers is insufficient to meet the needs of businesses, says Mark Roberts, CEO of TechServe Alliance. One of the reasons, he says, is that the United States is not growing its own IT talent and people are not pursuing IT professions to meet the demand.

“It is a challenging time for finding talent in certain IT skill sets,” Roberts says. “Because of the tight supply of these workers, various industries are competing for them. So companies need to develop a strategy to attract these workers.”

Though IT staffing hasn’t been an issue yet, it could pose challenges down the road for Chief Information Officer Bill Spooner and his staff at San Diego-based Sharp HealthCare. They began planning their ICD-10 transition about two years ago.

Besides working with software vendors on testing systems, Sharp techs also started training its staff in how to properly and efficiently use the systems. Spooner has put 16 of his best coders through an online course on the new ICD-10 coding. He’s unsure if more will be needed.

“Coders are already scarce so we do worry about that,” Spooner says. “My other IT resources could also be scarce; everybody needs those skill sets so there is a lot of competition for those people. Coders will make more money when it’s all said and done.”

Andrea Siedsma is a freelance writer based in Encinitas, California. To comment email

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