Switching from IT Career to Healthcare IT (Medical Imaging / PACS Career)

I get often questions from people who are currently employed or unemployed from the traditional IT and/or telecom field and are considering switching over to a healthcare IT career. There is a definite need of these trained and experienced professionals in the healthcare IT field. In addition to the fact that many of the skills and knowledge can be directly applied, there is a definite need to gain new knowledge in the clinical and application domain. This paper lists my recommendations to these type of individuals on how to go about this.

A how-to guide for switching careers from IT into medical imaging and healthcare IT field.

Careers in the IT, and especially the telecom sector, are very dependent on swings in the economy and the trend to outsource many of its jobs, especially for the more day-to-day support, to lower cost countries. If you don’t mind riding the IT career waves with its many ups and potential downs, it could provide good potential career opportunities.  However, many professionals who have gone through one or more of its downsizing efforts, are looking for a more stable work environment.

Medical imaging and healthcare IT field has proven to be less subject to up and down cycles, especially those careers that are with institutions rather than the vendors providing healthcare and IT solutions. In addition, working in medical imaging healthcare IT field also gives a certain level of satisfaction to be able to make direct difference in the well being of people. Furthermore, it has been recognized and documented that IT is able to make a major impact on the efficiency and quality of health care delivery as it can prevent mistakes, and allows to apply best practices. That is why one might expect that the need for medical imaging and healthcare IT professionals will definitely increase in the years to come, especially with the recent emphasis on implementing Electronic Healthcare Records (EHR).

Imagine you are an IT professional and eager to make a career change into the healthcare IT field, how would you go about that? Unfortunately, there is somewhat of a barrier of entrance as many hiring authorities and managers feel that clinical experience is a very important attribute. Therefore professionals crossing over from the medical, i.e. clinical field, appear to the have in many cases an advantage. These are nurses, radiological technologists, especially those working as a CT/MRI tech, and even MD’s. However, that is not to say that an IT professional could not make the same cross-over as I have seen many successful people in this field, it just takes a little bit more effort to gain the appropriate knowledge and experience.

To get into this field, the first requirement is to become familiar with the medical terminology. This includes basic anatomy, diseases, and common terms. Imagine that you get involved with the support of an Electronic Health Record (EHR), one needs to at least know what the headings/tabs and the various fields that are displayed on a computer screen mean. Depending on the specialty, one also should learn specific terms and technologies of that field. Imaging is a field that requires dedicated support as it is so different from any other area, so if you get to work in a radiology or cardiology department, one needs to know what the difference is between a CT and Ultrasound, and how the image characteristics differ. Basic patient positioning information that is used to configure workstations for image arrangement (aka hanging protocols) and procedure descriptions have to be familiar to you. One needs to know the difference between an EKG and EP data from cardiology. It might seem overwhelming in the beginning, but it is not really rocket science.

How to become familiar with medical terminology? There are many resources on-line, there are classes on community colleges and books are plentiful. There are some free online training resources and there are even specialized training classes dedicated to teach IT people about these subject (see “Clinical for IT people e-learning package from OTech).

After getting familiar with the clinical domain, the next step is to learn about the technology used. Here is where IT people have a distinct advantage as the technology used is not much different from what area you are used to work in. It is relatively easy to cross over. Let me give a couple of examples, using a PACS, i.e. Picture Archiving and Communication System that manages medical images and related information such as generated in radiology or cardiology. Systems have a database such as Oracle or Sybase for indexing patient and image records. There is not much difference between the image database and any other corporate database, it is just a matter of understanding its specific data base scheme. Assuming you know a little bit of SQL programming, you’ll do just fine with this. The back-end of these systems connects with workstations using high speed networks, typically 1 Gbit/sec. using off the shelf network technology that allows VLAN’s to be configured through the routers, having appropriate firewalls and gateways and VPN connections to professionals needing access from outside the facilities. Again, nothing new, especially if you are CISCO certified and/or you have knowledge about networking.  Most of the desktops use windows, therefore Microsoft certification will help here. There might be some UNIX around as well, especially for the servers, so knowing a couple of UNIX commands would help as well.

Potential healthcare IT candidates also have to become aware of the specific requirements if this area, and that is first of all to make sure to maintain patient privacy and security as they might need access to this information in order to support and develop these systems. Secondly, depending on the level of patient impact, medical software and devices are classified by the FDA and have strict rules about making changes as this might directly impact patient safety. One needs to also be aware of potential hazards in this environment, knowing that it is dangerous to get too close to an MRI with anything metal, that X-ray and any other radiation exposure can be harmful, and that it is important to keep some areas sterile. All of this is easy to learn and get used to, although it requires a certain discipline to make sure that you keep on following the rules.

The medical applications and devices communicate with standard protocols such as DICOM and HL7, which run on top of TCP/IP. These are a little bit tricky to learn, especially DICOM, and you might consider taking a self-study course (Take our free DICOM/HL7/PACS Courses) or face-to-face class on this subject. As a minimum, it is recommended to get a text book to study this area.

To get into this field, it is definitely an advantage to get certified, especially if you come from the outside. There are two options in case you are considering working in the PACS field, CIIP and PARCA certification, of which the PARCA certification is more technical and challenging and therefore might be a better choice. There are several publications that discuss the difference about these certifications in more detail, check our article on CIIP vs PARCA Certification.

After acquiring this knowledge, it is imperative to keep it alive and current; otherwise the majority of the information is forgotten after a few months. If you are fortunate enough to be able to attend any conferences, this would be the recommended way, but not many can take of time and/or carry the expense for this. Alternatives are watching regularly web conferences and medical imaging webcasts about these subjects, which are often free or require a modest fee.  Another good source of learning is to find out what people are discussing in the various user and use groups. There is a lot of content available on the internet, start with wikipedia, and for more in-depth coverage, you can use portals such as www.healthimaginhub.com. Also, if you have any friends or acquaintances who work in the medical IT field, try to pick their brain as much as you can. If you are lucky, they might actually be able to show you around in their clinical environment.

To actually land a job in this area you’ll need to do your homework. Decide whether you like to work for a vendor who serves this area or for the end-user i.e. a healthcare institution. There are also careers that are a mix, i.e. you could be employed by a consulting firm that serves this field and be placed at a client location. The big consulting firms (IBM, Perot/HP, etc.) serve many healthcare facilities ranging from running their datacenters to placing project managers, and domain experts on site. You might keep all options open as there are opportunities in all these fields. Also it is not unusual for professionals to switch over either. I know many people who worked in both areas, vendors are always looking for people who have worked in a clinical environment, and institutions also like to hire ex-industry personnel. Actually getting a job is similar to any field, it is all about networking. There are several recruiters who specialize in this area, and, as a minimum, I suggest you talk with them, especially if you like to find out where the most opportunities are, the salary ranges, etc. More information about salaries in the PACS field you can find in the PACS resources guide. It is also suggested to work with your state workforce commissions. I have had several students in our training classes for which they supported and/or financed the career retraining.

Having worked in the healthcare field for more than 30 years, I can attest that healthcare IT career is very rewarding and satisfying. When I see parents and kids in a Children’s Hospital or older people in a VA facility, I often relate it to my own family and feel good that I can make a difference in the life of so many people with my knowledge of technology to create a more effective environment to provide patients with right medical care. It is also a pleasure to interact with the many professionals in this field. I remember a physician in Children’s Hospital telling me “we are different” and a veteran working in a VA facility saying he worked there to give something back to his fellows. So, from a personal perspective I can only recommend to make the switch; good luck and feel free to contact me if you like any advice.

Herman Oosterwijk

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