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What Employers Should Look For in Health Information Management Professionals

HIM professionals require a unique combination of industry expertise, people skills and analytical skills.

Cheryl Martin and the text Cheryl Martin, MA, RHIA health information strategic advisor

A career in Health Information Management (HIM) is a “hidden jewel of job opportunities” says Cheryl Martin, health information management strategic advisor at the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA). HIM professionals require a unique combination of industry expertise, people skills and analytical skills.

These skills are also increasingly valued by healthcare employers. On one hand, protecting data privacy is essential, and on the other hand, the ability to pull meaning from data can impact health outcomes as well as a hospital’s balance sheet. Employers are searching for people who can both protect data and interpret it — who can “make it available for those who need access but protected from those who don’t,” says Martin.

Most importantly, she emphasizes, HIM professionals must possess genuine empathy and caring. Even though much of their work involves the analysis of data, it is always in the context where real people — who are often very vulnerable — are behind the numbers.

AHIMA is the organization representing HIM professionals. It also offers the Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA) certifying exam that most graduates take when embarking on their careers.

Southern New Hampshire University’s Bachelor of Science in Health Information Management recently earned accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM). Graduating from a CAHIIM-accredited program allows a student to meet one of the eligibility requirements to sit for the RHIA exam.

Cheryl Martin joined AHIMA in early 2019 after many years as the chief information officer in large regional hospital systems. She shared with us some of her observations about the trends employers in healthcare organizations should watch for that impact their HIM employees.

This interview is condensed and edited for clarity.

Why do you say an HIM career is a hidden jewel?

Health information is being touted as the new oil. It’s a commodity growing in value. Using that to its greatest potential to assist your organization is going to be extremely valuable.

What branches in the field might people want to explore?

It just depends, and that's the beauty of the field. Is it somebody who wants to get closer to the patient, but not too close? Working with the electronic health record is a great way to be able to impact patients and patient care delivery but at a distance. If you are interested in changing how care is delivered and helping move medicine forward but you don’t want to be a clinician, then data analytics or data governance may be directions for you.

Healthcare organizations need people who can make correlations and find things in the data that others can't. These are the data scientists. But they have to understand healthcare and data within healthcare — who needs it, when and why they need it, the rules and regulations that surround it, what you can release and what you can't and the terminology within healthcare.

What trends should employers be watching in HIM that impact their talent development strategy?

When the electronic health record was adopted, there seemed to be a pause by many health information management professionals saying, "Whoa, I'm not too sure about this technology." And in that hesitation IT professionals and others slid right in to fill the void. In many organizations, the only players senior leadership has seen managing data are the IT folks.

I am an IT folk, so that is not said in a disparaging way.

What skills set HIM professionals apart?

The most important part is the HIM professional's relationship to the patient. The people who enter the field generally have the natural ability to feel empathy. This informs the awareness that behind every piece of data, is a connection to a “somebody.” It's a very human focus on the data.

Health information is the intersection of business, technology and healthcare. For us, health information is human information.

Where do people in this field get that deep conversant ability in healthcare?

Experience, mostly. Sometimes you've got clinicians; it might be something they transition into.

In addition, the curriculum addresses the role of the HIM professional within the system, not as a standalone participant.

I started in traditional HIM then veered off into the IT side. But I certainly wasn't tearing apart servers and putting them back together. It was always about information management. I saw the power and ability to impact how we handled information across the organization with my HIM background and training in the role of the CIO.

We had a great team of the technology-focused staff, which is vitally important. But the technology should never be the main focus. It is simply a tool.

The infrastructure becomes like the water and the lights. You notice when it's not working, but the expectation becomes that infrastructure and technology are always functioning to support what you need to do in support of the creation and use of that data.

Managing data is an operational imperative, but I imagine people in HIM also see data as a strategic imperative.

It is. Collecting it is part of the ABCs of the business. But when I talk about using data, I'm talking about the ability to learn more to improve processes and to advance medicine on a large scale.

You've got a great asset sitting there, so now you've got to hire people to come in and leverage that asset. It’s somebody opening up a cupboard and saying, "Whoa." It's looking for trends using the information available.

How are employers striving for that strategic approach?

Employers are going to see a lot more collaboration between people with HIM degrees and people with IT experience. There's a lot that health information management professionals can gain by that collaboration but it goes both ways. The technology just gets more and more sophisticated and there continues to be more and more of it. You can't be an expert in everything, but you certainly have to be conversant.

Your IT team is such a valuable resource right at your fingertips. We, as HIM professionals, need to share our expertise in privacy, integrity and the people-data connection with our IT partners. The saying, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is so very true.

In addition, we need to continually raise the bar for HIM baseline knowledge and competencies in technology. For example, it's expected somebody coming out of college is going to have a working knowledge of Excel, Word and PowerPoint. In the same way, it’s expected that HIM graduates have an understanding of what a VPN (virtual private network) is. That didn't used to be thought of as very basic, but now it should be woven into college curricula.

How do employers view soft skills when developing HIM professionals?

It's heightened in a field like healthcare, where you’re dealing with people at their most vulnerable. It's a place where human interaction is extremely important — the ability to deal with change, handle conflict, the ability to listen, actually excelling in all forms of communication. In fact, one of the big focuses we will have in 2020 for professional development at AHIMA is soft skills.

In your experience, do undergraduate programs in HIM help develop these skills?

Yes. There is a student-educator bond in HIM that goes on long after you're out of the program. It's a very tight, very family-like profession.

I still call professors from college, and I graduated 30 years ago. We talk often, as I also do with HIM professionals I went to school with. This is due to the relationships developed, but also because you've got people holding each other to high standards.

If somebody is an educator in health information management, everything they teach is seasoned with, “This is all about the patient.” The health information management curriculum focuses on the human interaction and connection that weaves through the data and information.

What should employers think about when it comes to artificial intelligence and HIM professionals?

The term “data scientist” is bandied about a good bit, but they need people highly skilled in data analytics — the ability to assess if there is integrity in the data.

A much bigger issue is data governance — how an organization defines its data, how it collected it, how it stores it, all those housekeeping procedures. If there is not uniformity and structure that wrap around all of that, then how do you know you've got good data?

The combination of AI and bad data is a mess. Data and information governance is core to leveraging your assets in a way that will move the organization forward and get the best outcome for patients.

It sounds like you need some combination of architect and a designer.

Exactly. That's why I always say it's not just the health information folks and the IT folks. It's both. Together they can answer the why, what and how of what is needed.

What is AHIMA working on next?

We're figuring out how to discuss the breadth of the profession without pigeonholing people into particular roles. It’s more about the skill sets they possess. I love what we've come up with. It captures the sweet spot where we are unique compared to other healthcare and information professionals.

What else can employers do to find people for their HIM roles?

When the medical records were paper, everybody knew who needed to take care of those records and where you need to get your talent from. Now, when employers are looking to fill roles that have to do with health records, they need to put health information professionals as the preferred option for positions that have to do with the information systems in the organization. Oftentimes, because they don't do that, those jobs aren't attracting HIM professionals. This means they may not be hiring the best person for the job.

Once employers figure it out, though, they can't get enough. A new program director said at a discussion recently that they marketed to all the healthcare systems within a 50-mile radius. She said now the HR departments are asking, "How many more graduates do you have in the queue?”

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