Health Information Management (HIM) Degree
Morgan Gleason was no stranger to the American healthcare system. In her early teens, Gleason was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder, and spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals by the time she reached 18 in 2016. But she walked out of a health clinic in Florida that year with a lot more problems than she had gone in with… at least according to her electronic health record (EHR).
One of the notes in the file had her down as a mother of two children. One had died shortly after being born, while the other was still alive—apparently, though Gleason, had somehow failed to notice ever being pregnant. On top of that, the EHR said she had diabetes… also news to her, as well as to the doctors who had been treating her for years.
Actually, Morgan Gleason had a different sort of problem… her medical records were among the estimated 70 percent that just flat-out have the wrong information in them. And, infuriatingly, the clinic staff told her that the problem wasn’t the record, but her! It’s the kind of Kafkaesque episode that underlines the need for dedicated and well trained health information managers with a commitment to accuracy and the kind of professional integrity that ensures medical records can be relied on.
The situation was a little amusing in Morgan’s case, but when errors of that sort lead to a misdiagnosis or the prescription of a deadly dose of medication, it stops being funny real fast.
Standing between those patients and the potential for medical errors are healthcare information management professionals. Dedicated to building strong systems for collecting, storing, and protecting patient health information, they have to be experts in the ethical and regulatory implications of handling sensitive patient data, as well as the software and systems used to manage it all and keep it secure. That combination of skills is something you can only expect to get from a quality degree program in health information management.
What is Health Information Management?: Jobs at the Intersection of Healthcare and Information Technology
As information technology becomes more and more integrated into the healthcare system, the potential for errors becomes more and more grave. And that means health information management is becoming more and more specialized.
That allows for a wide variety of jobs in the field. AHIMA, the American Health Information Management Association, identifies several distinct categories of jobs within the field—each of these positions represents at least one of those families:
What these all have in common are strong analytical skills, attention to detail, the ability to communicate clearly, to problem-solve effectively, and to think critically about the advantages and disadvantages of technology in health information management.
What is the Difference Between Health Informatics and Health Information Management?
As you look around at programs, you will see a lot of references to health informatics as well as health information technology. Although there is significant overlap, and many organizations blend the fields to different degrees, you’ll find distinct areas of responsibility between the two in most cases.
Health informatics is primarily about processing and interpretation of data to improve healthcare delivery… sometimes at a very high level, as through big data analysis that uncovers new therapies or hidden signals in noisy information to diagnose complex diseases like Parkinson’s, using machine learning to comb through neuronal mitochondria to identify those that are healthy and those that aren’t.
Health information management, on the other hand, is more akin to traditional areas of information technology but applied strictly in the healthcare context. This can mean that the work involves maintaining networks and systems, enabling data acquisition, securing patient information, and ensuring uptime for critical information systems.
The great news about health information systems work is that you can find jobs available at every level of skill and experience. The field needs people stringing wiring and plugging in routers in sub-basements just as much as it needs high-caliber CIOs and CTOs to make the big platform decisions and take charge of major infrastructure projects.
That means you can potentially start off quickly with even a basic associate degree in the field before working your way up. This is very much a field in which tiered career progression aligns with different degree levels. As you advance to higher degrees, other, more advanced and clearly defined positions become available to you.
Health Information Management Degree Options: Associate, Bachelor’s, Master’s, Doctorate and Certificate
The most common major for these professionals is, suitably, Health Information Management or Health Information Systems, which many colleges offer.
But it’s also possible to get into the field by majoring in areas such as Healthcare Administration, Business Administration, or Information Science with concentrations in HIM. The difference is primarily one of emphasis; you’ll find more classes devoted to the particular area of the major and a handful that deal specifically with HIM. But this can be entirely appropriate depending on your goals and intentions – there is certainly a growing demand for health administrators who are as familiar with HIM and HIPAA as they are with budgeting and business finance, for example.
Associate Degree in HIM – In just two-years, an associate degree can give you a solid footing to find work as a technician in HIM roles in areas like coding and database administration, as well as potentially preparing you for a bachelor’s degree by essentially getting the first two years of a four-year program out of the way, while at the same time making you career-ready.
Most schools that offer associate degree programs in HIM will be very upfront about the transferability of those credits, even going as far as to have clearly defined transfer agreements in place with area colleges that offer bachelor’s programs designed to pick up exactly where your associate program left off. An AS degree is almost guaranteed to transfer, while AAS (Associate of Applied Science) are more likely to focus solely on the technical skills you need to be job-ready instead of offering the broad education of a transfer program that’s designed to lay the foundation for a bachelor’s. If you’re considering a bachelor’s down the line, this is an important point to be aware of.
Bachelor’s Degree in HIM – A bachelor’s degree opens up a new level of career options in HIM. These four-year programs offer all the technical education you need in the context of healthcare records management to get going in a career that involves advanced procedural coding or even in roles on the quality improvement side of the business, but some of thereal magic of a bachelor’s degree is the liberal arts core. Courses in history, English, social studies, and other apparently unrelated subjects are, in fact, designed to open up your brain and crank up the critical analysis lobes to a higher frequency.
Although the Bachelor of Science degrees that are usually awarded in HIM have less of this kind of thing than you would find in a Bachelor of Arts, they are still considered a platform degree for mid-level positions in the field because of this broad, reflective educational approach. The whole idea is to help you develop your entire professional self, blending technical skills with other all-important skills in written and verbal communications and general knowledge that will prepare you to work shoulder-to-shoulder with everyone from administrators to MDs.
Master’s Degrees in HIM – Advanced courses delivered through a master’s program will go head-long into some of the most urgent and current challenges in healthcare information management. These programs not only help you become more knowledgeable about the bigger implications of health information management – going into the finance and economics of healthcare, quality improvement and patient outcomes, along with the legal and ethical implications of missing the mark on accuracy and privacy – they also prepare you to be able to solve those problems. It’s not enough to know what the issues are; you also need to be able to fix them, and that’s what studying HIM at the master’s level is all about.
Master’s programs definitely cover theory, but they’re ultimately about practical, rubber-meets-the-road, solutions-oriented knowledge and skills. As a master’s student, you’ll expand your horizons and take part in original research and hands-on development of new approaches in the field. In fact, your thesis or capstone project will almost certainly require you to develop some unique and practical idea of your own and see it through in either a publication-worthy paper or a real-world project to demonstrate its value.
Doctoral Degrees in HIM – Doctoral degrees are even more in-depth, setting you up for some of the highest positions of leadership or advanced research posts. You’ll have even more opportunity to custom-tailor a curriculum that focuses on the topics you are most interested in and see it through all the way to a dissertation or project.
Post-Degree Certificate Programs in HIM – Some people follow a non-prescriptive career track that leads them to the health information management field, hailing from backgrounds where they have already put in plenty of time in school and aren’t exactly interested in the expense and time it takes to dig into a whole new master’s program to retrain. Allied health professionals and even nurses making the move from direct patient care to information management are the classic examples, but just as often it could also be IT professionals coming from outside the healthcare industry, or healthcare managers switching specializations.
Post-bacc and even post-graduate certificate programs are designed exactly for people that already have a degree, or degrees as the case may be, but who need to orient the healthcare or IT related skills they have specifically to health information management. These programs distill down the basics of a HIM education into a short program that cuts out the extras that you would already have absorbed in other degree programs and gets right to the heart of what you need to know about HIM.
A Curriculum Heavy on Technology, ICD Codes, and Regulation Prepares Health Information Professionals
Although healthcare is definitely a field that requires a lot of highly specialized knowledge and training, when it comes to IT work, most of it still boils down to pushing ones and zeroes around. You will need to develop a degree of knowledge about the industry, but it’s not going to require any specialized medical training—instead, it’s the same kind of business domain knowledge that you’d need to pick up to work in, say, aerospace or energy.
So most of your coursework will be on very typical information systems and theory, leadership and organizational behavior, accounting, quantitative decision-making, and research and planning skills. But you will find a few specific courses that are available to really help you get into the details of HIM as well:
Healthcare economics and finance – Much of HIM revolves around ensuring that healthcare facilities can accurately track and bill for treatment expenses. Understanding the financial and revenue systems as they operate in the unique environment of American healthcare is vital.
Diagnostic and procedural coding – One of those arcane processes involves classifying almost everything in accordance with the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), currently in its 10th revision. Getting into the weeds of diagnostic classification codes such as “W59.22XA – Struck by turtle” (yes, that’s a real ICD) is important for both creating an accurate record for medical professionals to reference later and for insurance reimbursement purposes.
Healthcare Statistics and Quality Improvement – Understanding how the information you collect and manage will be used will help you collect and manage information better in the future… so in an ongoing and constant effort to eliminate errors and improve the usability of the data that gets collected, you can expect HIM curriculum to include reviews of statistical techniques and quality improvement methods.
Anatomy, Physiology, and Pharmacology – You’ll also get a crash-course in some of the medical sciences to help you classify, code, and understand some of the elements of vital statistics and observations involved in healthcare information.
Ethics and regulatory considerations – Finally, you’ll get a strong education in patient privacy and ethical considerations and the regulatory standards to which you will be held as a manager of their personal information. Episodes like the one made famous in which 13 staff members at the UCLA Medical Center had to be fired for getting too curious about Britney Spears treatment history are not ones any HIM professional or administrator is anxious to see repeated in their own facility.
Specialty Accreditation Validates Programs in Health Information Technology
Health information management is a highly specialized area of study straddling the fields of information technology and healthcare, so it only makes sense to look at programs that have a specialty accreditation from an organization that knows the ins and outs. While almost every American institute of higher learning holds a basic institutional accreditation, only specialty accreditors are qualified and authorized to evaluate and approve specific programs in extremely technical fields like HIM. And when it comes to health information management, there is just one accreditor in the business.
The Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM) has been recognized by CHEA, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, and the Department of Education as having the right processes and expertise to offer approval for HIM degrees at most levels – associate, bachelor’s and master’s. Advised by a Health Information Management Accreditation Council composed of educators and professionals who actively work in the field, you can be sure that the standards they hold schools to are in line with the cutting-edge processes and procedures you’ll be expected to know when you get into the field.
Health Information Management Degree Online – Are Remote Degree Programs the Right Choice in Health Information Management?
Any kind of technology professional will probably be thrilled to find an online program in their field. If this is the kind of career you want to have, you already know all the advantages of online studies:
You’ll be happy to hear, then, that there are plenty of available online health information degrees available, and even many traditional on-campus programs that have converted many classes to remote delivery in response to the 2020 pandemic. So if you still like a little taste of the traditional on-campus style, you’ll find that these recently converted programs along with purpose-built hybrid programs, allow you to take most classes online, while still offering some in-person labs and group projects to work on with classmates and instructors.
Certifications in Health Information Management
Sitting at the confluence of health and information technology, two fields that are already pretty certification-happy, you will definitely find benefits from obtaining professional certifications in HIM. In fact, you can take advantage of plenty of standard IT-industry certifications to boost your career as well, from the Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) to the Security+, all depending on your area of specialization.
Some of the specific healthcare information management professional certs you may consider, and the organizations that offer them, include:
- American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA)
- Registered Health Information Administrator
- Registered Health Information Technician
- Certified Coding Associate
- Certified Coding Specialist
- Certified Documentation Improvement Practitioner
- Certified Health Data Analyst
- Certified in Healthcare Privacy and Security
- Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS)
- Certified Associate in Healthcare Information and Management Systems
- Certified Professional in Healthcare Information and Management Systems
- American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC)
- Certified Professional Coder
- Certified Outpatient Coder
- Certified Inpatient Coder
- Certified Risk Adjustment Coder
At a minimum, each of these will require that you pass an exam demonstrating your knowledge in the field. More rigorous certifications also require some level of college education along with experience in the field, and sometimes attestations from supervisors or coworkers.
A Critical Difference Between Certification and Certificate Programs in Health Information Management
A professional certification is not at all the same thing as an academic certificate in health information management. You’ll find many colleges offering certificate programs at the post-bacc and post-graduate level, but these, of course, are education and career prep programs, different from exam-based professional certifications leading to credentials like the ones listed above.
It’s easiest to think of a certificate program as the education you need in the field, while the professional certification is a validation of that education, along with other factors that may be considered like experience and demonstrated expertise.
Jobs and Salary Prospects for Health Information Management Professionals
If you thought that IT was a fast-growing field—and it is, with an 11 percent growth rate forecast between 2019 and 2029 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)—healthcare is really going to blow your mind.
There are industry-wide trends in healthcare that are focusing on technology as well. International consultancy Deloitte forecasts that the healthcare industry will create 4 million new jobs by 2026 and that technical positions will grow at 15.2 percent, representing the second fastest growing segment in healthcare.
Salary Expectations for Health Information Management Jobs
Where demand is high, so are salaries. AHIMA publishes a salary survey annually tracking the income levels of HIM jobs nationwide. They offer a number of interesting perspectives on 2019 salary levels, starting with average compensation by job family:
The size and setting of these positions also have an impact, with HIM professionals working in home health or long-term care facilities drawing the lowest salaries, and those employed at vendors, labs, and life sciences facilities commanding the highest, into the six-figure range.
Regional differences can also be stark:
Naturally, your salary is going to vary a lot depending on your level of responsibility as well:
Modern Health Executive conducted a survey in 2019 that offers even more insight into the most senior HIM positions in the industry:
MHE also notes that those figures were up 6.5 percent year-over-year… so whatever your starting salary in the field, you can expect it to be marching up the scale at a healthy pace.
Health Information Management Professional Resources
At the crossroads of two of the fastest-changing fields in the world right now, HIM professionals need more than ever to find resources they can count on to stay up-to-date with the latest developments. Professional networking, continuing education, and mentorship of the sort that you will find at these organizations will help you out on your career path, as well as offering you the opportunity to return the favor and perform important advocacy work for the profession.