Local firms don’t leap on notion of health data jobs

Consultant says market niche promises new jobs; local leaders are skeptical

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Clark County’s health care sector has been one of the region’s solid job generators despite the gloomy economy.

But if the county wants to be a leader in the next wave of health care innovation — and to snag the jobs that go with it — it needs to become a hub of “health information management,” according to the draft Clark County Economic Development Plan produced by Austin, Texas-based consulting firm TIP Strategies Inc. The plan — commissioned by the Columbia River Economic Development Council for $80,000 — recommends the county develop a niche industry in which tech-minded people develop portable electronic medical records, produce security systems to protect them from cyber-thieves and otherwise advance the role of information technology in health care.

Yet local health care industry leaders say TIP Strategies’ focus on the intersection of health care and information technology might just be behind the times.

Jonathan Avery, chief administrative officer for Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, said a $110 million project to shift the entire Legacy system to a single shared electronic medical record system is already slated to be ready by the end of September. Several other hospitals in the region have either already made such moves or are headed in that direction, Avery said.

Legacy’s new system — provided by Wisconsin-based Epic Systems Corp. — will improve the tracking and use of patient data, Avery said. While Legacy has employed some “third-party consultants from the local market” to help with certain aspects of the project, the project “hasn’t really created new technology jobs,” he said.

An opportunity

There’s no doubt that health care is a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy Clark County economy.

The industry was up 300 jobs in May over the same period a year ago. And it “looks to be back on a growth path after taking a year or so off,” said Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the state Employment Security Department.

Moreover, the TIP Strategies plan projects that the nation’s hospitals will add more than 470,000 jobs by the end of the decade. “Most job growth in health care services will be evenly spread across the country,” according to TIP Strategies.

Then there is PeaceHealth’s merger with Southwest Washington Medical Center (now called PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center), and PeaceHealth’s decision to move its headquarters to Vancouver. TIP Strategies says the merger “provides an opportunity to develop the Health Information Management sub-sector in the county.”

To that end, TIP Strategies says, regional institutions, including the CREDC and Washington State University Vancouver, should work to create an information technology hub in Clark County and to recruit high-tech health care companies to the county.

PeaceHealth leaders have said they plan to implement a single, efficient electronic records system for both hospital groups, spreading the cost across the entire combined organization.

Peter Adler, the nonprofit’s senior vice president and chief strategy officer, said it also plans to work with WSUV and Clark College to develop training programs for health care workers with the idea that they would go on to find jobs in the region.

As you build a critical mass of health care providers, Adler said, “constellations of support services” do tend to crop up, potentially creating new jobs.

Diverse possibilities

PeaceHealth’s move to Vancouver creates one opportunity, while federal health care reform — which is pushing health systems to adopt efficient digital records and information systems — creates another, said Jon Roberts, principal of TIP Strategies who oversaw development of the firm’s Clark County plan.

Roberts said health information management is a nascent industry that goes beyond hospitals’ shifts to new electronic medical records systems. As family medical practices and specialty clinics need more information technology, demand will grow for software coders and online security, he said. The range of job possibilities in health care information is “astonishingly diverse,” Roberts said.

The questions Clark County should ask, he said, are: “Does this represent a cluster? Does this represent a concentration of skill sets that can actually have an economic impact?”

Enough workers?

Whether Clark County has the talent pool to serve health care companies’ information technology needs is an open question.

Office Ally, which provides electronic medical services — including an electronic billing service for doctors — is growing so fast it can hardly keep up with the staffing demands, said Brian O’Neill, the Vancouver company’s owner. “We have 18 (job) openings right now,” he said, noting that when the company set up shop here two years ago it employed 80 people; now, it has 140.

O’Neill said he’s having a tough time finding highly skilled people, including software developers and business analysts. That’s not all because of a lack of college-degree-toting tech heads. That’s also because of the rattled labor market, he said: Some of the workers he’d like to hire simply don’t want to risk leaving their jobs during a time of economic uncertainty.

O’Neill, whose company generates between $20 million and $30 million in revenue annually, said he appreciates TIP Strategies’s focus on health care and information technology.

Different approach

Avery, the chief administrative officer for Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, said he doesn’t see how Legacy’s or PeaceHealth’s presence gives Clark County an advantage in the health care information market. After all, he said, plenty of other major metro areas are home to big health care providers that are embracing advances in health care information.

What makes more sense, Avery said, is for Clark County to focus on companies that provide medical devices. For example, Vancouver-based nLight provides high-power semiconductor lasers and specialty optic fibers that are used in industrial, medical and defense products.

“We use their lasers in our operating rooms for a number of things,” Avery said.

Along with its focus on health care information, TIP Strategies also urges the CREDC — the county’s veteran nonprofit economic development agency — to add “health care services” to its list of targeted industries.

There’s “real opportunity for entrepreneurial activity” in health care information, said Roberts, the TIP Strategies leader, although it won’t be an easy undertaking for Clark County. “There’s still a ton of work in this,” he said.