FARMINGTON – Hospitals across the country are facing a shortage of skilled workers to fill thousands of jobs created by a national push to make all medical records digital.

It’s getting so tough to find employees to meet the demand that health care providers are struggling to keep the workers they have, said Ralph Johnson, chief information officer for Franklin Community Health Network in Farmington.

“I have six people at the Franklin Memorial Hospital, and I’m confident that they’re getting calls from headhunters on a regular basis,” Johnson said, referring to other hospitals trying to lure away his digital medical records staff.

The shortage inspired the University of Maine at Farmington to seek new ways to help students tap into the emerging job market. When UMF professors started asking around last year to learn where the most jobs are in health care, Johnson was among the industry leaders who helped them develop a new degree program.

They came up with a program that focuses on health care information careers, making UMF the first college in Maine to offer a four-year undergraduate degree that ties together business and computer technology with health care information skills, said Sheena Bunnell, a business and economics professor at UMF.

The program starts this fall.

The skills should help students get jobs in everything from hospitals to insurance agencies dealing with the transition, Bunnell said.

UMF wanted to target an emerging field because the tough job market in recent years has shown the need for better job placement, she said.

Plenty of jobs are available in health care information fields, Johnson said, and the number should continue to rise.

There is a nationwide shortage of about 60,000 workers needed to handle the electronic medical records transition, and about 1,000 of those jobs are here in Maine, Johnson said.

A federal program is also giving money to health care providers to go digital, said Johnson, who oversees information technology staff for the Franklin Community Health Network. To get the money, they have to show that the switch to digital is improving health care services, he said.

For example, prescribing drugs using the Internet makes the process easier for doctors, patients and pharmacists.

About 90 percent of records at Franklin Memorial Hospital are now digital, Johnson said. Once the switch to digital records is complete, the hospital could get $1 million a year over the next four years in federal incentive payments, he said.

Doctors are reporting, sharing and managing medical records better because of the shift to digital, Johnson said.

The change helped minimize the 2010 Franklin Health Medical Arts Center fire’s impact.

“We had a fire on Saturday, and on Monday morning (the doctors) saw all their patients because they had access to (digital) medical records at another location,” said Kathy Horton of the Franklin Community Health Network.

“Had that just been paper (files), some of the (doctors) might not have had records at all.”

Health care providers that don’t make the change to digital in the next six years could lose a percentage of Medicare payments for not following the federal law, Johnson said.

Community colleges offer certificate programs for workers to fill some of the jobs, but four-year universities were not training the managers needed to make the change, he said.

“UMF had the foresight to see what was coming. They were the ones reading the tea leaves,” he said.