A partnership between the Regional Healthcare Network and UAB’s Department of Health Services Administration creates a program to solve one of the many problems of rural health-care providers.
The government's incentive program to spur the meaningful use of electronic health records appears to have been a success. According to a recent CDC National Health Statistics Report, the number of medical practices using EHR has almost doubled since the program's launch in 2009. Many Alabama healthcare providers have benefited from the conversion to EHR.
Unfortunately, this is not the case for all providers. The challenges of transitioning to EHR are particularly daunting for Alabama's rural health-care providers, even with financial incentives.
Alabama is one of the poorest states in the country with its rural areas facing a shortage not only of funds, but also of sufficient bandwidth to meet the connectivity requirements, of health care providers, and of trained information technology workers to manage the EHR systems once they are in place.
Help for at least one of these challenges is on the way. Alabama's Regional Healthcare Network, in partnership with UAB's department of Health Services Administration, has been awarded a grant from the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy to address rural Alabama's lack of trained information technology workers. The program will target eleven counties in northeastern Alabama, one of the more economically depressed regions of the state, to train health IT workers in rural areas.
Eta Berner, EdD, Director of the Center for Health Informatics for Patient Safety/Quality in the School of Health Professions at UAB, will work with representatives from Gadsden State Community College and Central Alabama Community College to develop a curriculum designed for this training. The Regional Healthcare Network, working with the two colleges, will recruit area students.
The training will consist of a nine-month certificate program followed by a three-month apprenticeship at a participating rural medical practice and will be open to students who already have associate degrees or higher. Some students who are currently enrolled in an appropriate associate’s degree program will also be eligible for the certificate program. Students who do not have associate degrees will also be able to take the certificate program, but will be encouraged to enroll in an associate degree program as well. The certificate program will train students in the most commonly used EHR software in our area and also familiarize them with meaningful use and HIPPA regulations and requirements.
Though the program will be open to anyone who is interested in enrolling, the recruiting emphasis will be on people who live in the area, particularly students who might otherwise leave the area for better opportunities, veterans, minorities, and workers who lost their jobs when local plants shut down, explains Michael Bice, CEO of the Regional Healthcare Network and program director for the Health IT training program. There are also plans for a continuing education program for people who are already working in rural health care and need additional training in electronic records. Once the students have completed the certificate program and their apprenticeships, the Network will help match the students with medical practices in need of their new skills.
Creating a pool of workers with sorely needed health information technology skills will be a tremendous help to rural practices trying to move into the new world of electronic health records. However, the effects of the program are expected to be broader than that. Bringing rural Alabama up to speed technologically is essential to attracting new physicians to the area. "If you are trying to attract a board-certified resident to work in a rural area, you'd better have EHR. They expect it," Bice says.
Beyond solving a crisis in medical staffing in these underserved areas, this program should make a significant difference in communities that have seen manufacturing jobs disappear with nothing to replace them. "This is a really good career path," says J. M. Mickey Trimm, PhD, Associate Professor and Director for the Center for Healthcare Management and Leadership at UAB, one of the grantees. "It's a great opportunity for rural people."
The initial recruiting has already begun, but the team expects the program to get into full swing winter term.