Education: Where Does It Get Us?

Ellen S. Karl, MBA, RHIA, CHDA, FAHIMA

By Ellen S. Karl, MBA, RHIA, CHDA, FAHIMA

In today’s healthcare arena, the requirements for educated professionals have increased dramatically. However, the field of health information management (HIM) has not kept pace. In my current role as an educator, I attempted to promote my adjunct faculty, but I found it difficult to do so because the HIM terminal degree remains at a baccalaureate-degree level.

In many other fields, both within healthcare and external to HIM, the doctorate is considered to be the terminal degree. Many moons ago when I launched my career in HIM, my colleagues in the physical therapy and pharmacy fields were also baccalaureate-prepared. We were all equals—all department directors in a given hospital. But professionals in these fields (and their associations or state departments of health) wanted more. Pretty soon, doctorate degrees were required for pharmacists and physical therapists who are required to have a PharmD and a DPT, respectively. In HIM, however, the push to earn advanced degrees stagnated at the bachelor’s-degree level.

Personally, the decision to continue my own education beyond a bachelor’s degree was to bolster my opportunities. Senior-level HIM positions in the large, urban, multi-hospital systems usually require master’s-prepared HIM professionals to fulfill their leadership teams. When I transitioned to academia after working in acute care for 25 years, a new white paper, “Vision 2016: A Blueprint for Quality Education in Health Information Management,” had been written by a committee of educators (the AHIMA Education Strategies Committee) on the importance of HIM members moving their education to the next level. That was in 2007. In 2016, “Vision 2016” morphed into “Reality 2016,” and here we still are with the terminal degree being the bachelor’s degree.

I do believe that today there are a larger number of masters- and doctorate-prepared HIM professionals than when these papers were written. Some of this has to do with educational offerings. Do we have enough universities offering a master’s in HIM so that we can elevate the terminal degree to the master’s? Not yet. There are only a few CAHIIM-accredited master’s degree programs, with several in the pipeline. For me at the time, I sought out an MBA with a concentration in health administration since there weren’t any HIM master’s programs when I was looking for one. In order to elevate the profession, we need the expectation to be that the master’s in HIM is the terminal degree. But until we have enough people with that degree and enough colleges offering the degree, we cannot move the ball forward.

There is an imperative in today’s healthcare world for the skills necessary for higher-level positions in HIM. In my HIM program at City University of New York (CUNY), we have a full course for students in database management and project management. Sometimes students ask, “Why do we need these courses?” If HIM professionals are to remain relevant in this healthcare environment, we need to evolve, adapt, and change. You don’t need to be a database manager or a full-time project manager, but you need to know these skills so that your expertise can be relied upon. Picking up specialty credentials can also help your career trajectory, such as the Certified Health Data Analyst (CHDA) or Certified in Healthcare Privacy and Security (CHPS) credentials.

In my younger professional days, I was asked to create my capital budget for the HIM department. I decided to put anything and everything that I thought I needed into that budget. There was something new and innovative called an optical disc player that could store copies of medical record documents. I had a hard time procuring prices to include in my budget, but I did include it. It did not get funded, but I was trying hard to be forward thinking and pushing myself and the organization to look down that future road.

Have you looked down the road at your own career? Have you pushed yourself to the next academic level? Education is a key marker to help you get to where you want to go. You just need to get started. Today.

Ellen S. Karl ([email protected]) is the academic director for health information management and health services administration programs at CUNY School of Professional Studies.

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