The next wave of workers hired by the nation's health care industry may never see a patient.

Instead, they'll need to know what Kelly Dale teaches at St. Paul College -- the complex medical coding system used by hospitals and clinics to get paid.

Her students are on the front line of an effort by the nation's colleges and universities to train more workers for the medical system's continued march into the digital age.

But educators say training programs are not keeping up with the demand for information technology workers with expertise in medical data.

"There's a major skills gap right now," said Ryan Sandefer of the College of St. Scholastica, a private school that offers the state's only four-year and master's degree programs in the fast-growing field. "There's just tons and tons of data. The problem is, there's not a whole lot of people with the technical expertise in how to build the systems correctly or how to use the data accurately."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says 12,000 to 50,000 health IT workers will be needed in five years. Many jobs will involve helping hospitals and clinics handle coding and billing, and setting up patient's electronic health records.

There's also growing demand for highly trained workers who can analyze and manage data, train clinicians and others in the technology and protect it against privacy breaches.

Providers and insurers recognize the untapped potential to use data to lower costs, improve patient care and prevent illness -- key principles of the federal health care law that will be important no matter how the Supreme Court rules.

"We need people who can make sense of it all, and help us get good reports that tell us how well we're doing with the quality of care," said Linda Wagner, a nurse and director of clinical education at Essentia Health, a Duluth-based network of rural hospitals and clinics across four states. "We just can't get them."

'Price of admission'

At Eden Prairie-based Optum, the health services division of UnitedHealth Group Inc., a highly skilled workforce in health technology "is the price of admission" to a modern health care system, said Samantha Hanson, Optum's vice president of human capital.

The skills are needed now, she said, "but it's only going to get stronger as we use data in more innovative ways to deliver health care."

Minnesota is just starting to meet that need.

Under a $5.2 million grant from the 2010 federal stimulus package, about 300 students have earned degrees or certificates in health IT and another 100 are enrolled in such programs at technical and community colleges.

Minnesota has 14 accredited programs in the field, according to the state chapter of the Health Information Management Association, but none of the state's public colleges and universities offers a four-year program. It's a shortcoming acknowledged by higher education officials, who are competing for students with other states that offer online courses.

Winona State University has been scrambling to create new programs. It expects to launch a bachelor's degree in Health Information Technology in the fall of 2013 and to add a four-year degree in Health Information Management the following spring. The offerings will be among the first from a public university in the five-state area.

'A critical area nationally and in the state'

"This is just a critical area nationally and in the state in terms of moving a national system forward for electronic health records and in ensuring more efficiency," said Diane Dingfelder, executive director for outreach and continuing education at Winona State, which is part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. "It's an emerging need. We don't expect it to go away."

The College of St. Scholastica, a Catholic Benedictine college in Duluth, for the first time is offering a program for Twin Cities students who want to further their studies beyond a two-year associate's degree program.

Starting this fall, St. Scholastica will offer a hybrid program that combines online study with classroom instruction. Classes will be held at St. Paul College, near the state Capitol, but will be open to students at any community or technical college.

"We're trying to give students a more-flexible opportunity to get into the baccalaureate program," St. Scholastica's Sandefer said. "There's a great need for advanced training, and the salary differential is massive."

While the starting salary of someone with an associate's degree is about $30,000, a bachelor's degree can bring about $50,000, according to the American Medical Informatics Association. After five years on the job, earning potential can reach $75,000.

That's part of what attracted Lindsay Peterson to the field. The single mother of two preschoolers is among the beneficiaries of the federal grants. She works part-time at Wal-Mart and is in her final class -- taught by Dale -- to earn a certificate in medical coding at St. Paul College.

"I love it," said Peterson, 28, of St. Paul. "It's like a puzzle. My interest is in getting a better job so I can have a better life for my children."

If she can land a job, she might be on her way. Workers in the medical records and health IT field in Minnesota earn a median wage of $18.75 an hour, compared with the national average of $16.22, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

For Michelle Smith, 52, a laid-off office manager, the field offers a chance for rapid career advancement.

She's volunteering in the medical records department at Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, and will graduate from St. Paul College at the end of this semester with a two-year associate's degree. Smith said she hopes to continue working toward a bachelor's degree.

"It's a growing field with lots of potential -- assuming someone will take a chance on me and hire me," she said.

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335