Shortage of Health-IT Workers Is Limiting Progress

BRISBANE, Australia — The warnings are nothing new: there’s a nursing shortage, family medicine is dying, demand for long-term care is soaring. But if health-IT is to fulfill its potential in helping to address these challenges, the need for informatics professionals in healthcare is only going to grow, and not just in the United States.

“It’s clear that this is a limiting factor in the development of eHealth programs,” said Swiss physician Antoine Geissbuhler, liaison from the International Medical Informatics Association (IMIA) to the World Health Organization (WHO), as the two bodies announced a new collaboration.

With health-IT leaders from all over the world gathered in Australia last week for MedInfo 2007, representatives of IMIA and the WHO said they would collaborate over at least the next three years to develop a global health informatics workforce.

They also said they would promote the Global Observatory for eHealth and the sharing of intellectual property. The Global Observatory for eHealth, established in 2005, is kind of a clearinghouse for best practices, “to better understand the eHealth space in countries around the world,” according to WHO eHealth coordinator S. Yunkap Kwankam.

In emphasizing workforce development, Kwankam, a U.S.-educated native of Cameroon, talked of a “growing know-do gap,” which he described as “the gulf between what’s known in science and what we actually do in medicine and practice.”

Kwankam said that health-IT, and more specifically, knowledge delivered to the point of care, can help bridge that gap. He noted that the 8,000 worldwide employees of the WHO can’t possibly serve the health needs of 6 billion people, so global health depends on an informed populace.

“I believe: arm the individual with information and we’ll have a revolution,” Kwankam said. In the digital age, the supplier of arms will be legions of informatics pros and other knowledge workers. “Access to care had been dependent on face-to-face contact. We don’t have to have that anymore,” said Kwankam.

Geissbuhler, chief of medical informatics at Hôpitaux Universitaires de Gèneve in Switzerland, said that IMIA is interested in the “10x10” effort of the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA), in which the U.S. affiliate of IMIA seeks to train 10,000 health-IT professionals by 2010.

However, AMIA chief executive Don Detmer, also in Brisbane, noted, “The global issues are different in a lot of ways.”

Geissbuhler acknowledged that the issue internationally is more than just training, but also of brain drain, as migration of informatics professionals to places like the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan threatens health-IT progress in developing countries.

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