Digital Medical Records Revitalize Health Technology Industry



  • Experts predict at least 50,000 health IT jobs to be created within the next five years
  • The 2009 federal stimulus package offered $18 billion in incentives for care providers to install electronic health records systems
  • EHRs can help lower costs for patients, speed up test results, and make it easier for hospitals to get reimbursed for procedures

The Longhorn Clinic may be the best-equipped medical facility in Austin that’s never seen a patient. Its five exam rooms in the heart of the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin host some of the latest medical technologies: from wireless monitors for blood pressure and blood glucose to video-conference screens and carts with iPads.

“It’s a physicians’ office without physicians,” says Robert Ligon, Health Information Technology Lecturer at the College of Natural Sciences.

What does fill the mock clinic, besides gizmos, are 50 students at a time. They’re taking a crash course on one of the fastest-growing parts of the healthcare business: electronic health records. After nine weeks, they’ll get a certificate in Health Information Technology and Health Information Exchange. Within a few months, most of them will have their first jobs.

“They come out job-ready, and they’re snapped up in the marketplace,” says Leanne Field, Director of Health Information Technology Programs. Of 445 students who graduated from 2010 to 2013 and sought employment in that field, 92 percent found jobs with 64 employers nationwide. Of this summer’s class, 80 percent were hired within two months. Their average salary: $54,000.

The program highlights a paradoxical trend: The drive to make American healthcare leaner and more efficient is creating new jobs. A 2010 survey by the American Society of Health Informatics Managers projects that at least 50,000 positions will be created in health IT over five years. Says Field, “Health IT employers are currently reporting IT staffing shortages and the lack of a qualified talent pool — problems that are seriously impacting the ability to complete IT initiatives.”

Much of the wave can be traced to the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, a section of the 2009 federal stimulus package that promotes electronic health records. It offers $18 billion in financial incentives for doctors’ offices and hospitals that install EHR systems. Meanwhile, $84 million goes to programs like Field’s, which educate professionals to run those systems.

Why EHRs? To proponents, digitized records are the healthcare equivalent of a Swiss Army knife:

  • For patients, they can mean fewer duplicate tests and medication errors as they move from one doctor’s office to another. “A big driver of cost is duplicate testing,” says Field. “I get three EKGs when I only need one.”
  • For doctors, they can speed up test results. “You can get an EKG in New York and pull it out in Austin,” says Ligon.
  • For hospitals, electronic records can make it easier to classify procedures and get reimbursed for them.
  • For researchers, the systems can accumulate vast pools of data on public health.

At the Department of Information, Risk, and Operations Management at the McCombs School of Business, Professor Andrew Whinston envisions more futuristic uses for digital records. A variety of monitors can already plug into smartphones, automatically updating EHRs with measurements like blood pressure or length of exercise. In the not-too-distant future, doctors could check those records to see whether patients are sticking to treatment plans, and insurance companies could offer discounts for patients who do.

“There’s room for a lot of play in the insurance fee structures to recognize the willingness of people to be monitored,” says Whinston. “If they submit to monitoring, they have much more incentive to practice life in more healthy fashion, and pay more attention to taking their medications”.

Back at the College of Natural Sciences, Field is showing off her Health Information Exchange Laboratory, a sort of healthcare Internet that helps providers share records between different EHR systems. Her students can pull up data on 100,000 fictitious patients.

“They can practice role-based logins,” she says. “If they log in as a clerk, they see only demographic information. If they’re a nurse or a doctor, they can see clinical information.”

She doesn’t expect employers’ demand for her graduates to slacken anytime soon. To date, only 44 percent of U.S. hospitals have basic EHR systems, according to a 2013 survey by Mathematica Policy Research. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is pushing for 100 percent.

“The Congressional Budget Office estimates full operating efficiencies won’t be reached until everybody has one,” says Field. “We haven’t reached a tipping point yet.”

Dr. Leanne H. Field is the Director of Public Health, Medical Laboratory Science and Health Information Technology Programs at The University of Texas at Austin. More Information about the Health IT & Exchange Specialist Certificate Program at UT Austin can be found at


Faculty in this Article

Andrew B. Whinston

Professor, IROM

Andrew B. Whinston is a professor in the department of Information, Risk, and Operations Management at the McCombs School of Business. He also...

About The Author

Steve Brooks

In a quarter-century as a journalist, Steve Brooks has won two Neal awards for excellence in trade reporting and a Press Club of New Orleans award...

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