Soft Skills Emphasized in Healthcare IT Roles

What are the hot skills in healthcare IT in 2012? If you answered database administrators, project managers, or EHR software development and maintenance, you may be thinking of the functional or industry-specific skills that have traditionally been core hiring requirements for IT staff. But things are changing. The newest emphasis in healthcare IT is on so called “soft-skills,” not only for people in these traditional roles, but for entirely new roles such as change agents and CNIOs — Chief Nursing Information Officers.

According to a 2012 IT research study and salary survey (InformationWeek), a recent development is the active recruiting and hiring by Kaiser Permanente of behavioral science Ph.D.s  to work with the IT team to help the organization assess its processes and offer expertise in change programs. According to CIO Phil Fasano, “Behavioral experts tend to look at change or workflow with a different eye.”

Recruiters may also be asked to find candidates for CNIO or Chief Nursing Information Officer roles. According to Mary Beth Mitchell, CNIO at Texas Health Resources, CNIOs are the “newest members of the C suite. They bridge the gap between nursing and IT and are often involved with the planning and deployment of clinical applications and other nursing-related IT.” Emphasis in this role is relationship building amongst key leaders and departments.

How are organizations defining “soft skills,” and why are they particularly in demand in the healthcare IT industry today? Soft skills are those behavioral competencies that enable individuals to interact with and influence others, be they teammates, customers, suppliers, or management. Skills such as effective written and verbal communication, influencing, negotiating, conflict resolution, team building, and strategic thinking top the list. Here’s how they come into play in the workplace.

Consider the situation faced by a small medical practice that purchased an electronic health records system and hired a project manager who had solid knowledge of the functionality of the software and experience in training end users. The physicians believed that they had everything they needed to move from a paper-based system to an electronic one very quickly. They soon learned that this might be easier said than done.

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In this practice, once the software was installed, the PM held an orientation session for five of the office staff and the six MDs who would be using the new system. Fortunately for this practice, their PM had significant strength in multiple soft skills, since this is what he faced during the orientation:

  • Three of six MDs were technologically savvy and onboard with the need for speedy implementation; the other three grew up in the “Marcus Welby” era and publicly stated that no computer could ever take the place of their textbook research and TLC with every patient.
  • The system that the clinic purchased did not include a billing module, so the staff member responsible for billing saw no need to attend training on the other modules.
  • Two of five office staff were unfamiliar with sophisticated, menu-driven programs, and believed their jobs were mostly data entry and customer service.
  • None of the office procedures were sufficiently documented, and each staff member saw him or herself as a great individual performer but not as part of a team.

It took a great deal of explanation, clarification, influence, understanding resistance to change, one-on-one training, coaching, and using change champions to make progress and complete this implementation — none of which could have been accomplished without the PM’s ability to influence and help people change their behavior.

Whether healthcare environments are small practices, large hospitals, network providers, or institutions within the payer community, whenever there is a system change, the change will always impact the processes and the people. Talent with strong soft skills and the ability to handle the people side of change will be worth their weight in gold, and experience with soft skills as tools for business-problem solving should be significant value-adds on any candidate’s resume.

Elizabeth (Betty) Black has worked in education and workforce development for over 25 years, most recently with Joanne Dustin, in partnership as Synergy Consulting Collaborative LLC. Their latest work is Career Collaborators® Building Career Communities -- a unique, self-directed career development program for both for-profit and non-profit organizations. For more information, see


4 Comments on “Soft Skills Emphasized in Healthcare IT Roles

  1. Great article!! These days many hospitals and physicians offices are “upgrading” to EMRs and usually have no idea what they need or want. Most healthcare IT professional and certainly the newly emerging CNIOs need as many soft skills as they do programming skills.

    Having extensive experience in the healthcare field and now the IT field, I know firsthand how essential soft skills are for the IT professional in this field. They need to be able to explain to a nurse why the programs are going to make their job easier and allow them to have more time with their patients. They will have to convince the COO and the CFO that the budget needs to include not only start up costs but ongoing costs and WHY that is important. And certainly the biggest challenge is to get the physicians on board because they are usually the most resistant to changing from paper to paperless.

    Patience, conflict management and team building are probably at the top of the list of “must have skills” for the IT professional. It is not uncommon that the person will need to participate in many cross-functional teams to help everyone understand how vital their department is to the success of the organization, and NOT just when the computer goes down.

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