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Stimulus Plan Seen To Swell Need For Medical Records Workers

By CityTownInfo.com Staff
July 13, 2009

A perfect summer storm is brewing, with a potential rainbow at the end--for people with the right training and experience. Take a shortage of medical records workers, add calls for cutting health care costs, and top it off with $20 billion in federal stimulus funds for doctors and hospitals that use electronic health records (EHRs). That singular mix forecasts a national boom in the medical records field.

"There's tremendous growth," says Claire Dixon-Lee, a spokesperson for the American Health Information Management Association, in an interview with Chicago's CBS2 television channel. Today, 75,000 people work in medical records nationwide. Double that number will be needed to help U.S. health care providers make the move to digital systems, Dixon-Lee estimates.

Computerizing paper medical files takes a special skill set. This includes accurate and concise writing ability, a good grasp of both medical terms and English grammar, and facility with computer programs. Medical records technicians can break into the field with a high school diploma and some health care experience, although a certificate, diploma or associate degree from a professional training program is a career boost. Salaries for medical records workers with an associate's degree range between $25,000 and $45,000, CBS2 reports. Add to that some experience in the field or four years of college, and salaries rise to $45,000 or more.

From the standpoint of providers, EHRs have some downsides, reports CNNMoney.com. The hardware and software involved represents a major investment. Physicians themselves need to learn how to use the new systems. Combine the infrastructure with the costs of labor and training and you could be looking at a $50 million to $100 price tag for a hospital to go digital. Meanwhile, privacy rights advocates have raised concerns about security of sensitive health information.

Yet, the EHR brings huge advantages, too. Health care experts say that unneeded tests and medical errors cost the country some $700 billion annually, CNNMoney.com reports. Digital records, they argue, could help trim the price of the world's most expensive health care.

Meanwhile, stimulus plan incentives seem poised to push medical facilities into the digital age. "Many barriers stood in the way of adoption, but the Recovery Act began to, in a significant way, find solutions to the financing hurdles," Janet Marchibroda, chief health care officer at IBM and former CEO of eHealth Initiative, told CNNMoney.com.

The stimulus bill, passed by Congress earlier this year, offers the $20 billion for health care providers that can show by October 2010 that they employ the EHR "meaningfully," notes CNNMoney.com. In addition, qualifying doctors and hospitals would gain access to Medicare and Medicaid incentives averaging some $7 million per hospital.

"We believe EHR will become as integral to medicine as the stethoscope," Dr. David Blumenthal, national coordinator for health information technology at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said in an interview with CNNMoney.com.

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