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Become a Certified Health Data Analyst (CHDA)

Healthcare data analysis is a relatively new field in the American medical industry. You can tell how new it is because the industry hasn’t even figured out what exactly what to call people working in this field just yet… health data analysts, health information management (HIM) analysts, healthcare business analysts, or healthcare data analysts are all roughly the same job, as defined by different companies who are hiring them.

And they are hiring like crazy, with some positions in the sector expected to increase by as much as 30 percent in the next decade. Whatever their title, highly trained data analysts are in increasingly high demand as technology in healthcare evolves.

While you don’t need a certification to work in health data analysis, it’s preferred by many employers. When staffing brand new and technical complex categories of job, hiring manager want some kind of assurance they are picking up candidates who have demonstrated the skills and experience to get it done.

Earning your Certified Health Data Analyst (CHDA) certificate proves that you have the technological and analytical chops to perform healthcare analysis at the highest levels… and to do it with the sensitivity and ethical standards that matter to both patients and regulators.

What Is Healthcare Data Analytics?

Healthcare data analytics describes the process of collecting and interpreting data from sources like electronic health records, patient satisfaction surveys, healthcare costs, and diagnosis statistics. It is usually done with complex, programmed analytical tools that can rapidly evaluate millions of data points and reveal them in visual or other easily-understood formats, where they are used to make thousands of healthcare decisions each day… everything from altering dosages for a single patient’s drug treatment regime to making big, population-level health decisions like imposing quarantines or lockdowns.

The increasing digitization of the modern world has resulted in more – and more intricately detailed – information than humanity has ever known. We know that all that information offers valuable insights through rational scientific analysis. But the old approach of sitting down with a print-out or looking over an Excel spreadsheet full of numbers has been rapidly outmoded by the sheer volume of data.

As far back as 2011, the U.S. healthcare system had already surpassed 150 exabytes of data, with more being generated at a more rapid rate every year. With every smartwatch, glucose monitor, electronic scale, and blood pressure sense collecting data electronically and storing it indefinitely, the volume of data that can be addressed continues to explode.

Healthcare data analytics is the field of work that has the job of taking all that data and finding ways to store it and use it to improve the efficiency of the system and outcomes for patients.

Analytics is Used in Every Aspect of the Modern Healthcare System

The ways that analytics can contribute to those goals can vary depending on the part of the healthcare system they are being used in. The Association of University Programs in Health Administration defines four of those sectors, and each uses a different aspect of healthcare analytics:

Providers – Healthcare providers range from big hospital systems to tiny urgent care centers to long-term care facilities. They are the patient-facing part of the healthcare system that most people are familiar with, and they tend to generate and use data focused on clinical applications. That means data such as:

  • Vital signs, like blood pressure and temperature
  • Visit information, such as how frequently a patient has been seen
  • Procedure records, covering treatments given
  • Diagnostic test results, from blood tests and other lab work

The ways that data are applied can range from supporting real-time monitoring and alerting for clinical staff, such as vitals monitors that sound alarms at nursing stations when stats fall out of certain safe ranges, to diagnostic analysis, such as machine learning routines that evaluate chest x-rays for anomalies in as little as 10 seconds.

Suppliers – Healthcare supplies are the organizations that help develop the kind of digital devices that generate all that critical clinical data, but also pharmaceutical companies, consulting organizations, and medical supply providers. They use healthcare analytics in ways that are more conventional to businesses, monitoring supply and demand for their products, or collecting usage data that helps them design better and more effective tools for clinicians. In the pharmaceutical industry, big data analytics is expected to add $100 billion in value by automating certain drug innovations and mining demographic factors to predict disease spread. Data-driven simulations have also become critical in simulating drug interactions and efficacy, saving time and money over expensive and sometimes risky clinical trials.

Insurance Organizations – In the insurance segment, data is all about driving efficiencies. Insurers collect massive data sets of information including:

  • Billing codes, showing the most common diagnoses and procedures
  • Individual health data, like patient visits and risks
  • Costs and provider efficiency

That data is used to help predict individual patient risks through analysis of their history to make predictions and recommendations for coverage and proactive treatment. And insurers also work with providers to help spread preventive and cost-reducing best practices through the industry… which helps insurers boost their bottom line, but also improves patient outcomes across the board, a win/win for health analytics staff.

Policy and Regulatory Organizations – Healthcare policy advocates and big government agencies like the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and FDA (Food and Drug Administration) use health data analytics to improve their understanding of the big picture and to boost population-level programs and policy tweaks that benefit all Americans. Their data collection can range far outside the usual range of healthcare information, to include:

  • General sociodemographic data, from ages to ethnic backgrounds
  • Environmental information, such as air pollution data
  • Geographic data, segmenting populations in different parts of the country

Experienced health data analytics professionals can bring all that together and blend it with more traditional health information, including genomic and biomarker data, and gain insights into long-term and geographic risks that might not even have been on the healthcare radar previously. Progress in dealing with otherwise obscure risks, like malnutrition within hospitals themselves,can be made by careful observation and analysis in this sector.

How HIPAA Impacts Health Data Analytical Work

All of this analysis has to be done carefully and in line with laws and regulations… an important part of the education of every health data analyst. Information technology has had as big an impact on modern healthcare as it has on every other industry on the planet, but it has happened more slowly and with a little more attention to detail because of the unique implications that come with health data.

Data analysis involves the collection and analysis of all kinds of detailed information that emerges during the medical process:

  • Diagnostic and lab results
  • Patient treatment reports
  • SOAP notes
  • Patient satisfaction surveys
  • Insurance documentation
  • Billing reports

But all of those are covered in some detail by privacy protections courtesy of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

HIPAA was actually passed to make it easier to modernize and improve the flow of information through the healthcare system, however. National standards for electronic health care transactions and other ways to streamline EHR (Electronic Health Record) processing and handling were laid down to help different healthcare organizations work more closely with one another using newer, faster, better digital formats.

So although data analysts often see HIPAA as an impediment, it’s actually also the reason you have a job in the first place.

The day-to-day manifestation of those security and privacy standards really puts the healthcare industry ahead of the game—taking responsibility for how data is used and distributed in ways that protects the rights and individual dignity of your patients.

What Does a Certified Health Data Analyst Do?

Certified health data analysts are the people that make all the magic happen, while still protecting patient privacy and upholding ethical standards.

According to AHIMA, the American Health Information Management Association, which is the organization that certifies health data analysts, they have five basic roles in any organization:

  1. Acquiring relevant data
  2. Implementing safe methods of data input and storage within their organization
  3. Interpreting the data to discover trends and anomalies
  4. Translating the data from technical terms into useful information for medical practitioners, legal professionals, and so forth
  5. Communicating that information to relevant parties at all levels, both within and outside of their organizations

This all requires a high level of technical expertise in the modern tools used for data collection, storage, and processing, including plenty of hands-on work with:

  • Big data storage software like Hadoop
  • Programming in Python and R
  • Familiarity with data processing libraries like numpy
  • AI and machine learning tools and techniques
  • Visualization tools such as Tableau

Although they might spend a lot of time working with computers, they also need excellent verbal and written communication skills. All the data munging in the world makes little difference if the results can’t be clearly communicated to the people who can best apply the information.

Sometimes data analysts work solo, particularly in smaller organizations, but more commonly they function as part of a team. In these scenarios they might develop a deep specialization in one or more of the roles or technologies listed above. But constant adaptation is the rule in the fast-changing world of Big Data, so continuing education as a way to keep up with the latest developments is also considered part of the job.

That goes double for regulatory issues. Changes in insurance coverages, patient privacy considerations, and the implications of new technologies shoehorned into old rules are major concerns. In 2008, singer Britney Spears was hospitalized at UCLA Medical Center for psychiatric care. As that news was splashed all over the media, 19 curious employees, including 6 physicians, none of them involved with her care, decided to snoop in the records for a little personal update. Thirteen had to be fired and the others were suspended for the violation… and the hospital’s health data analysts brought in to figure out ways to keep it from happening again.

While the industry is highly regulated, data analysts have to maintain some level of independence and creativity. Although running reports may sound mundane, at the highest levels, analysts have to come up with the right questions to ask in the first place, or devise systems that can bring concerns to light that no one might have thought to ask about.

In one case, an analyst looking through emergency department data found that patients with chest pain were most likely to arrive between 5 and 10 p.m. As there was no particular physiological reason for heart problems to occur during those hours, they went looking for more information… and found that the hospital’s cardiology clinic closed at 5 p.m. The emergency department was the only remaining resource for anyone experiencing chest pain. The hospital saved millions in observation admissions and ED billing simply by extending the cardiology clinic hours instead.

Being inquisitive and creative is a must for data analytics professionals. And they are well-paid for those qualities.

Certified Health Data Analyst Salary and Job Outlook

AHIMA provides a wealth of information regarding salaries available in the health data analysis field, based on responses from over 3,000 professionals in health information management fields.

They break down the average salary by job families, including some of the representative titles used by different organizations for those jobs:

  • Operations-Medical Records Administration – $81,950
    • Health Information Technician, Health Information Management Clear, Director of Health Information Management
  • Informatics/Data Analytics – $83,490
    • Data Integrity Analyst, Clinical Informatics Coordinator, Project Manager, Director of Clinical Informatics
  • IT and Infrastructure – $98,180
    • Implementation Support Specialist, Data Quality Manager, System Analyst, Data Architect

Naturally, salaries tend to rise with experience. The report found that first year professionals averaged $44,530, while those with five years under their belts rose to $52,400. At the top end, with more than 31 years of experience, the average was $86,390.

Not only is title important, but so is geography. Average salaries varied considerably based on the region of the country in which analytics professionals were based:

  • West Coast : $87,680
  • Mountain West : $76,670
  • North Central : $71,220
  • South Central : $78,090
  • Great Lakes : $72,400
  • South : $69,940
  • Southeast : $78,170
  • Northeast : $83,120
  • Northern New England : $84,410

Certification is important and can give you a real bump in your base salary. The survey shows that salaries can also vary depending on your specific certification level. The RHIA and RHIT are often considered precursor certifications to a full CHDA:

2019 Average Salary by Certification Type

Certified Health Data Analyst (CHDA) $92,100
Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA) $91,450
Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT) $70,300

CHDA positions could fall under a few umbrella careers as recognized by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, each of which is anticipating a different rate of growth.

Projected Growth (2018 – 2028) by Umbrella Career

Medical and Health Services Manager 31.5%
Medical Records and Health Information Technician 8.5%
Computer and Information Systems Manager 10.4%

How to Become a Certified Health Data Analyst

AHIMA offers a straightforward guide to becoming a Certified Health Data Analyst. You must take and pass an examination, administered by third-party proctoring company Pearson VUE at testing centers nationwide. You’ll have to pay a $75 application fee as well as an exam fee of $259, or $329 for non-AHIMA members.

The exam is timed, with three and a half hours allowed to complete between 130 and 160 total questions testing your knowledge, skills, and experience. Only about ten percent of applicants passed on the first try in 2019, which should give you some idea of the challenge.

But simply meeting the qualifications to take the exam in the first place involves a whole other set of challenges. There are several pathways to meet the eligibility requirements, depending on your education and experience. You will qualify if you hold one of the following:

  • A master’s degree in Health Information Management
  • A master’s degree in another field plus one year of healthcare data experience
  • An RHIA credential
  • A bachelor’s degree and three years of healthcare data experience
  • An RHIT and three years of healthcare data experience

To prepare for the exam, you must have a strong understanding of business needs assessment and data acquisition and management, analysis, interpretation and reporting, and governance.

Do I Need a Medical or Data Background to Be a Certified Health Data Analyst?

While it never hurts to have medical training or experience when working in any area of medicine, being a CHDA doesn’t require a medical background. Your degree can be in any field, provided you also have the requisite healthcare data experience.

Similarly, you are not required to have a background in data analytics or processing, although you may find it difficult to handle technical portions of the test without the right preparation. But you may build these skills quickly through a data analytics bootcamp or even through diligent self-study.

Associate Degrees in Health Data Analysis

While there aren’t associate degrees specifically in health data analysis, an associate program in health information management can be an excellent first step toward becoming a CHDA. An associate degree qualifies you to take the Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT) exam, which qualifies you to work with medical records and health information and in other health technology entry-level positions. After a few years of experience, you can sit for your CHDA exam.

These programs take approximately two years of full-time education and may include courses like medical billing and coding, health records, and healthcare ethics. Associate degrees may also be used to satisfy the first two years of a bachelor’s program, if you have taken care to select one that offers transferability to the bachelor’s degree of your choosing.

Bachelor’s Degrees in Certified Health Data Analysis

If you want to be a health data analyst, the most straightforward route may be to earn a bachelor’s in healthcare administration and analytics, healthcare administration, HIM, or health informatics. Some people also opt to earn a bachelor’s in statistics, computer technology, or math. However, they may need additional training, such as a graduate certificate, to work in health data analysis if they choose these routes. Having a bachelor’s in HIM allows you to sit for the Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA) exam, which can allow you to then take the CHDA test without additional work experience.

Bachelor’s degrees typically take four years of full-time education to complete, and courses in the healthcare-related fields may include healthcare data management, healthcare software, and information technology. All bachelor’s degrees include a considerable amount of general education coursework as well, improving your communications and critical thinking skills along the way.

Graduate Certificates in Certified Health Data Analysis

If you have a bachelor’s in a relevant field but want to further specialize in health data analysis without committing to a master’s program, you can return to school for a graduate certificate. These programs not only allow you to focus on health data analysis but also prepare you for master’s study if you later opt for that degree. You may be able to shorten your time in a master’s program if you already have this training (contact your chosen school to verify).

A graduate certificate isn’t required if you want to take the CHDA exam. It can prepare you for the test, however, and you may use it to argue for an exemption to certification or work experience requirements for the CHDA exam—though you aren’t guaranteed this exemption. Coursework will be similar to those in bachelor’s programs, but with a heavier focus on data analysis.

Don’t mistake a graduate certificate for a CHDA certification; despite the similarity in names, a certificate offers only education, while the certification validates that knowledge and other experience in the field.

Master’s Degrees in Certified Health Data Analysis

Master’s degrees in healthcare data analytics itself are relatively common, though you can also earn degrees in HIM, health informatics, and healthcare administration to become a CHDA.

Master’s programs delve deeply into the highly technical aspects of data science and healthcare information management. Earning these credentials helps boost careers into management and leadership roles, as well as qualifying you for some of the top data scientists positions in the field. You’ll gain the expertise to lead teams and innovate in cutting-edge aspects of healthcare information analysis.

You can often earn a master’s degree in this area entirely online, and the programs take approximately two years to complete if studying full time. You can expect to take classes in healthcare leadership, computer programming, and information technology administration.

Doctorates in Certified Health Data Analysis

It’s rare for CHDAs to have doctorates. However, if you find yourself wanting to work in academia or health information policy, this option may be right for you. Relevant doctorates include those in public health administration, biostatistics and data science, and health informatics, among others. Coursework will vary based on the degree path you choose.

Continuing Education Requirements

You’re required to re-certify as a CHDA every two years to maintain your certification.

Like most professional certifications, the linchpin of this process is continuing education. You’ll need to accumulate 30 CEUs (Continuing Education Credits) during the two-year cycle period, with an additional 10 CEUs for every additional certification you hold from AHIMA.

Continuing education credits can be earned in several ways. CHDAs are required to do a yearly self-review, which is worth five CEU credits. AHIMA itself offers a variety of continuing education options, including quizzes ($20 for members, $30 for non-members) worth one point each, and other opportunities such as volunteering with the organization on certain activities. AHIMA, its state branches, and other HIM organizations may also offer conferences or trainings that count toward CEU points.

The certification also allows for up to 20 percent of your credits to be earned in areas not directly involved with healthcare information management, so you can also expand your knowledge in subject matter areas related to medical and social subjects that you may need to better understand for information analysis.

Certified Health Data Analysis Resources

  • American Health Information Management Association: AHIMA is the official certification organization for CHDAs and other health information specialists. They hold trainings and conferences, have test preparation options, and offer a career center, among other valuable resources. Yearly membership ranges from $49 for students to $199 for premier members, with three other levels in between. The organization also offers volunteer opportunities for exposure to the career field before you make a commitment.
  • Lorman: This company offers CHDA CEUs approved by AHIMA. Classes include live webinars and on-demand options. Courses cost $99-$249 each, or you can opt for a yearlong pass for $699. You could also encourage your company to request a custom quote that would allow your whole team to earn credits.
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