Get Started in Health Information Management

Get Started in Health Information Management

If you want to work in healthcare but in a nonclinical role, check out the fast-growing field of health information management (HIM).

A local school's health information technology (HIT) department can provide the necessary education.

"We get a lot of people who want to work in the healthcare field without patient contact," says Anita Taylor, MEd, RHIA, CCS, chair of the HIT department at Oakton Community College in Illinois. HIM can help fulfill this desire.

HIM professionals gather, code, manage and maintain patient health information. HIM's coding aspect is especially critical. HIM pros assign the correct code to each healthcare procedure or diagnosis and must be very familiar with the human body and how it functions, explains Lynda Carlson, MS, MPH, RHIT, program director of the HIT department at Borough of Manhattan Community College. For instance, CT scans and MRIs have different codes, as do compound leg fractures and simple ones. "You need to be able to read a chart and pull information from it," she explains.

Proper coding ensures that doctors and facilities get reimbursed accurately and in a timely manner. Upper managers analyze this data to improve care and resource use.

Carlson says HIM professionals -- who work in settings ranging from hospitals, doctors' offices, hospice agencies, managed-care organizations and legal offices -- must be detail-oriented and "a little bit of a detective" to locate information in patient records. Taylor says that flexibility also helps, because regulations and technology are constantly changing.

Uptick in Salaries

The HIM field is growing rapidly, with jobs for medical records and health information technicians expected to increase 20 percent through 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Salaries are on the rise, too. The American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) reported that since 2000, the percentage of AHIMA members earning at least $40,000 a year increased nearly 25 percent, while, in the same time frame, nearly 21 percent fewer AHIMA members made less than $30,000 a year. Those with an associate's degree typically earned $20,000 to $30,000 to start. Those earning four-year degrees began at $30,000 to $50,000 and can make $50,000 to $75,000 in five years, according to AHIMA. A 2008 survey estimated the average annual full-time HIM salary regardless of work settings to be $57,370.

Crack the Career Ladder Code

Passing AHIMA's credentialing exams opens the door to greater opportunities. The entry-level Certified Coding Associate (CCA) designation credentials those with relatively little job experience. A CCA with in-patient facility (usually hospital) experience can advance by earning the Certified Coding Specialist (CCS) designation. Those with expertise in physician-based settings can pursue the Certified Coding Specialist-Physician (CCS-P) designation.

Professionals with broad knowledge of HIM areas beyond coding can sit for the Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT) or Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA) exam. RHITs must have an associate's degree, whereas RHIAs must hold a four-year degree.

Class in Session

If you're considering a career in HIM, experts recommend earning at least an associate's degree from an AHIMA-accredited school. That degree will give you more job flexibility, such as moving from coding to quality improvement, Carlson says. If your sights are set on management, you'll generally need a four-year degree and the RHIA credential.

Additional tips for selecting an HIM program include:

  • Make sure the program offers a solid foundation in the profession's two main coding systems -- ICD-9 and CPT -- as well as training in medical terminology, biology and anatomy.
  • Look for programs that offer clinical courses. These courses let you work at hospitals for several weeks, where you gain exposure to different departments and can show potential employers your skills.
  • Check the class schedule. Single parents and full-time workers might find it difficult to meet course requirements at schools with no evening classes, or whose clinicals require on-site weekday work for several weeks.
  • Remember that while completing a quickie course -- some just eight weeks long -- may lead to a job in the short-term, your long-term potential could suffer. If the course isn't accredited, you can't sit for the credentialing exam, says Taylor. This means you'll face lower salaries and limited opportunities, and you won't be able to apply your credits to a college program.