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Posted on: Wednesday - Sep 7, 2016

When you think health care, Nashville comes to mind as the nation’s leader.

The health care industry has long been one of the major drivers of Nashville’s economy. In 2014, health care contributed nearly $39 billion to Nashville’s regional economy, according to a study conducted last year by the Business and Economic Research Center at Middle Tennessee State University and the Nashville Health Care Council.

Yet as the health care sector rapidly evolves with changes in delivery and payment structures – not to mention expanded access to insurance coverage – the industry is under pressure to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of care.

That’s where health care information technology (health care IT) fits in. In a new report, The Brookings Institution states that information technology “has disrupted nearly every other sector of the economy” and “its most disruptive opportunities are yet to come in health care, a field that has lagged behind in adopting IT and data-driven innovation.” 

The Brookings report finds that Nashville – with its deep roots in the health care space – is uniquely positioned to take advantage and lead the way in health care IT innovation.

Already, there’s been substantial growth in health care IT in Nashville.

Brookings found in the recent report that jobs in the Nashville health care IT sector grew 15.4 percent between 2010 and 2014 – more than five percentage points faster than the national growth rate for health care IT employment.

Equally as important: Health care IT’s economic output in the Nashville region expanded 27 percent from 2010 to 2014, or nearly double the national rate for this sector.

Health care IT produces as many as 106,000 jobs and nearly $12.6 billion in economic output for the Nashville area, according to Brookings’ report. Such totals account for more than 10 percent of both the employment and gross metropolitan product, or the total economy, in the Nashville region, Brookings said in the report.

One of Nashville’s biggest strengths, according to Brookings, is the “high-skilled nature of the region’s prominent occupations.”

“More than any peer region, Nashville’s mix of workers in medical and diagnostic fields skews toward occupation with higher STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills,” Brookings writes. “Nashville leads comparable metro areas in the STEM-intensive occupations of clinical laboratory technologists, laboratory technicians, and medical and health service managers. These occupations are important to the region’s overall ecosystem because they support technology applications and development related to health care.”

And while Nashville’s health care IT sector is growing, now isn’t the time to let off the gas. 

That’s the message from Brookings analysts as well as TNECD Commissioner Randy Boyd, who recently addressed the Nashville Technology Council at its annual meeting. 

“This is an important industry and a big industry in Nashville,” Boyd said of health care, while pointing to Brookings’ finding that productivity growth in health care is lower than any other sector with the exception of construction.

“You have this juxtaposition between the biggest industry in our city and it’s lagging in productivity [growth]," Boyd added. “It’s a challenge, but it’s also an incredible opportunity. When we pair our technology prowess with this natural asset of the health care industry, I think we have a great opportunity.”

Brookings ultimately describes Nashville’s health care IT ecosystem as “underdeveloped.” In other words, the recent growth in this sector – though positive – could be even more pronounced in the years to come if Nashville makes a concerted and unified effort to build its health care IT sector into a national powerhouse much like its current health care industry, Brookings writes.

When stacked up against a group of 10 peer metro areas, Nashville’s health care IT job growth ranks near the middle, according to Brookings – ahead of cities such as Kansas City, Birmingham and Boston, but behind technology hubs such as Austin and San Jose.

Brookings’s analysts recommend three main courses of action:

  • Expand the region’s innovation infrastructure
  • Build the pool of health care IT workers, especially software talent
  • Deepen the health care IT ecosystem

And Brookings concludes: “By adopting a strategy to shape and strengthen its ecosystem for [health care IT], the [Nashville] region can establish itself at the forefront of the next generation of health care innovation, creating economic value and jobs in Nashville while improving the quality of life for millions of Americans.”