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Electronic Medical Records

Electronic Medical Records

Techies seeking work with an entrepreneurial bent, cutting-edge technology, and the opportunity to tackle life-and-death issues may want to explore the burgeoning area of healthcare technology devoted to electronic medical records (EMRs).

As a concept, electronic medical records -- also known as electronic health records and computer-based patient records -- has been promoted for years, especially in the wake of a groundbreaking 1991 Institute of Medicine study. EMR systems promise a number of benefits, including:

  • Instant access to a patient's medical history.
  • Improved communication among labs, hospitals and various healthcare providers.
  • Prevention of conflicts over prescriptions and tests.
  • Guidance on medical options to clinicians.
  • Improved accuracy by avoiding handwritten notes.

The Tipping Point

A number of factors, including budgetary constraints, technological deficiencies and institutional resistance, have kept EMRs from widespread acceptance up to now. This is likely to change, however, given how electronic medical records are a centerpiece of the healthcare initiatives outlined in the Recovery Act.

The EMR market has really approached the tipping point, says Jim Hewitt, CIO of Allscripts Healthcare Solutions in Libertyville, Illinois.

For techies, this translates into a growing number of opportunities, especially as companies compete for business from hospitals and other institutions. "There will be more opportunities in the days ahead," says Julie Wilson, chief people officer of Cerner, a healthcare IT company in Kansas City, Missouri. "There's a tremendous amount of work to be done."

Understanding the Healthcare Environment

As Hewitt notes, several issues make the EMR space particularly challenging as well as rewarding for techies. EMR technology involves a wide range of devices such as PDAs, tablet PCs and desktop PCs, with some running wirelessly in environments -- exam rooms, for example -- where computers haven't been standard equipment. The technology must assure patient privacy and keep data secure from disruptions and intrusions. Technology professionals must also understand the healthcare environment and players, particularly physicians, who have sometimes been resistant to EMR systems.

A background in healthcare can be a real asset, but it is not a necessity to break into the field. Clinicians, such as doctors and nurse practitioners, often play a role in product development and even sales. However, for those working in software development and system implementation, not having healthcare experience doesn't inhibit your ability to pursue a career working with EMRs, Wilson notes.

For example, healthcare knowledge can differentiate a job seeker from other candidates. "It's definitely helpful to have some degree of understanding in the healthcare space," Hewitt says.

Most tech positions involving EMR systems are with technology vendors such as Allscripts and Cerner, but you can also find opportunities to work on implementation and support issues at hospitals, clinics and even doctors' offices as part of an IT staff or as a consultant. Vendors seek techies with expertise in software development, networking, databases, implementation, training and technical writing.

Challenges and Rewards

The downside? Salaries for healthcare IT positions are generally lower than those in financial services and other industries. But those who develop and implement EMR systems see other rewards.

"The reason they're here is that they feel they can truly make a difference in the world and touch people's lives," Hewitt says. "They all have that same passion."

It's a particularly exciting time to be in the industry, given the focus on how EMRs can improve healthcare, according to Hewitt. "It's happening right now," he says. "We'll be able to say, 'We were there. We made this change.' That doesn't happen that often."

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