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A cure for the chronic health IT worker shortage

DanO'Connor

Dan O’Connor, Vice President, Client Relations, Stoltenberg Consulting

U.S. hospitals and ambulatory care providers added 43,000 jobs in July. This continues a run of healthcare job growth that has seen 928,000 new jobs since Jan. 2014, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. With this explosion in new hires comes onboarding challenges, including improving IT and EHR end-user knowledge and utilization.

Each day, often 24 hours a day, a hospital’s help desk receives, manages and resolves questions from physicians, nurses, and billing and administrative professionals regarding applications and problem resolution/closure. Typical tasks include end-user assistance with workflow-related issues, override adjustments, preference lists, smart text lists, assessment flow sheet, end-user training for function-based inquiries and order entry. If end users are not satisfied with issue resolution and knowledge transfer from the help desk, the same mistakes will likely be made time and time again, hindering care efficiency, patient safety and the patient experience.

Implications of HIT help desk service performance

The help desk serves as the face of the IT department across an entire healthcare organization, often with one support line serving several facilities and satellite clinics. Because most HIT analysts work behind the scenes, end users typically interact only with the help desk. This is an issue, considering that most end users face fatigue and stress from IT use.

Mayo Clinic and the American Medical Association (AMA) found that 6,560 physicians point to the clerical burden that EHRs create as cause for physician burnout. In the face of this stress, one bad help desk service experience can mean lost trust and respect for IT as a whole. Service issues such as long wait times and bad ticket handling tend to make end users think poorly of IT. This in turn can lead to less support and super-user influence for IT initiatives, including new application and system selection and adoption or optimizations across an organization.

Help desk performance doesn’t just impact end-user satisfaction; it also influences morale of HIT department staff. While healthcare industry growth continues, a chronic lack of HIT professionals to support that growth still exists. The Department of Health and Human Services and Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted a shortage of 50,000 HIT workers continuing into 2017.

This shortage can be attributed to mounting HIT anxiety in the face of high stakeholder demands, limited task budgets, and changing and competing projects. With the burden of unifying an enterprise IT strategy, HIT professionals are overworked, feeling isolated in the many responsibilities and implications of their projects.

In fact, a recent HealthITJobs.com survey found that over half (55 percent) of health IT professionals are frequently or constantly stressed. The top contributors to this stress are having little to no control over project deadlines and timelines (45 percent), changing work priorities (39 percent), workload (35 percent) and unreasonable expectations (34 percent). With the current trend of new EHR transitions, HIT professionals who take system functionalities live face constant pressure for added levels of support. Maintaining the help desk is the cherry on top of the pile of IT staff burden, pulling HIT staff away from higher level responsibilities.

Alleviating mutual IT stressors with help desk support

Outsourcing the HIT help desk is a solid option for easing staffing burdens and the need to aggregate tools for new system support. Help desk outsourcing options are typically well-versed in a hospital’s suite of solutions, even when transitioning from one EHR vendor to another, and they can fill in knowledge gaps for IT staff who are focusing on implementation or optimization. When looking at outsourcing options, keep a few tips in mind:

  • Consider keeping cost down through economies of scale by utilizing an experienced firm that provides help desk services to multiple organizations, splitting the service expense.
  • While outsourcing the help desk brings in an external provider, that doesn’t have to mean outside the country. Make sure the help desk vendor provides thoroughly screened and trained U.S.-based support that provides clear communication (both written and verbal) and knowledge transfer to end users.
  • IT end users are more likely to get the most out of their help desk experiences if they feel valued and engaged. Make sure help desk professionals offer real conversations instead of scripted responses. They should be able to shadow end users to determine the root of the issue for optimal first-call resolution and end-user education, avoiding repeat calls and issues.
  • Reporting is key in determining the ROI of help desk performance. An experienced quality help desk provider will report on number of calls, length of calls and time to resolve, wait times, call abandonment and user satisfaction. They should provide daily summaries and weekly reports, plus a monthly provider check-in meeting at minimum. Beyond this, help desk professionals should also share key performance indicator thresholds in their statement of work, such as earning a 70 percent or higher first-call resolution. By providing its performance metrics, the help desk provider indicates it is dedicated and willing to be held accountable to high-level service.

When end users – from physicians and nurses to registration and billing staff – call the help desk, they are likely already frustrated with the IT issue at hand. By having one unified knowledge source for all end users that provides quick response, clear communication, effective ticket close and transferable end-user education and adoption, a healthcare system can streamline IT issue resolution while improving the organization’s overall perception of the IT department.

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