Health Information Technology Careers
Health information technology careers give professionals remarkable new opportunities to improve quality and coverage in health care by lowering costs, helping to maximize efficiency, and putting a stop to avoidable medical mistakes. Those with a dual passion for computer and medical sciences have a perfect career choice in health information technology (HIT), also known as health information management (HIM).
The timing for such a career choice could not be better, as American medical doctors now confront a huge procedural shift from handwritten patient notes to digital records. The US Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) has mandated that doctors and hospitals adopt electronic health records (EHRs), which are also known as electronic medical records (EMRs).
According to an analysis by the Rand Corporation, “If most hospitals and doctors’ offices adopted HIT, the potential efficiency savings for both inpatient and outpatient care could average over $77 billion per year.” These massive savings are expected to come from more efficient drug prescriptions; reduced administrative time for doctors and nurses; and reduced time of hospital stays as a result of better scheduling, coordination and increased safety.
The HIT professional can take satisfaction in doing a job that moves medical care in the US forward in quality and efficiency. As HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in February 2012, “Health IT is the foundation for a truly 21st century health system where we pay for the right care, not just more care."
The medical community relies on HIT specialists in all geographical areas of the country and within all types of medical settings - private practices, hospitals, home health agencies, nursing homes, mental health facilities and public health agencies. The immediate tasks confronting an HIT professional depend partially on the current degree to which the employer has transitioned to all-electronic handling of patient information.
As these healthcare facilities select and implement new hardware and software systems, they must also provide educational programs to train medical staff in their usage. Information technology professionals accept the challenges of optimizing these new systems so that medical staff can adopt and consistently use them. Owing to their significant responsibilities, these specialists expect full time workloads and demanding schedules.
Prospective HIT specialists will need a minimum of an associate (two year) degree, preferably in computer sciences and/or information technology. It is optimal, however, to have a bachelor’s or master’s degree, and some schools offer such degrees specifically in health informatics. The Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM) accredits these programs. Those attending schools without this specific major or focus are urged to study computer science, math (including calculus and statistics) and biology. Prospective health IT professionals must possess solid knowledge of data base construction and management. The budding professional may also enjoy a competitive advantage by gaining specialized knowledge, such as in bioinformatics, the application of IT to the mountains of genetic data being generated by researchers on a weekly basis.
A college degree as described above is the optimal training for health information technology careers. However, it is conceivable that someone with an appropriate bachelor’s degree, such as in math or biology, could follow that up with extensive training in computers from a top level vocational school as well as gaining certification (below) to become a viable HIT candidate.
Licensing and/or Certification
The American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) offers certification of two types: Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT) and Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA). HIT candidates gain this certification by passing the corresponding test administered by AHIMA. An associate degree is a prerequisite for RHIT certification, while a bachelor’s degree is needed to sit for the RHIA exam. Members of AHIMA pay $229 for this exam while non-members pay $299. AHIMA membership itself costs between $175 and $235, depending on the level, but student and new graduate rates are also available. For those taking the RHIT or RHIA for the first time, a little over 70% will pass. AHIMA provides full information on the nature of the tests as well as recommended preparation and resources.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
The successful health IT specialist typically possesses skills in problem solving and of course a thorough knowledge of computer software and hardware. Attention to detail and an ability to work independently - solving computer problems in a creative way - is an essential requirement. HIT professionals require excellent written and verbal communication skills in order to educate end users of HIT in the essential details of the hardware and software. Work in HIT requires an ability to work productively with a wide variety of people, including designers and programmers, managers and administrators, and doctors and nurses. A sincere desire to make a positive impact in the medical community will underlie the HIT professional’s ability to coordinate diverse personalities in their activities while also showing grace under pressure.
Opportunities for Advancement
There are numerous opportunities for career advancement within the HIT field, especially in hospitals and other large institutions, with their hierarchies of various medical and support staff. Work experience tends to give people deeper knowledge in certain specialized areas, which can be parlayed into job and salary advancement either with a present employer or elsewhere.
Openness to new knowledge and a willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty definitely help HIT workers stand out within their group or department. Taking advantage of further educational opportunities broadens and freshens a person’s skill set, increasing value to an employer and helping to provide opportunities for advancement. For example, professionals with a strong computer and/or sciences background can take courses in management, administration and business - or vice versa.
If you would like to gain the necessary education to pursue a health information technology career, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.
According to employment agency reports, the overall average salary in health information technology is about $69,000 per year, with an average starting pay of about $44,000 yearly. However, some jobs start as low as $21,240. These averages of course reflect wide ranges in pay depending on geographic location, type of employer, and qualifications of the individual. Both salaries and costs of living will tend to be higher in large metropolitan areas. Other factors being about equal, when comparing those with associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, pay increases as the amount of education and training increases. Peak salaries in HIT are approximately $110,000 per year, though some administrative positions can pay more depending on the level of responsibility involved.
The job outlook in health information technology is good and should grow by 21% between 2010 and 2020. Almost 450,000 people are currently employed in HIT, with at least 78,000 job openings predicted over the next ten years.
In 2004, HHS established the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONCHIT), charged with facilitating the use of EHRs in the US by 2014. This was followed in 2005 by the founding of the Certification Commission for Healthcare Information Technology (CCHIT) to create a set of standards for EHRs and their supporting networks and to certify products meeting those standards.
According to a report by Medical News Today in February 2012, over 41,000 MDs and almost 2,000 hospitals have received more than three billion dollars in incentive payments from HHS, Medicare and Medicaid incentive programs to adopt health IT. The fraction of hospitals in the US using EHRs went from 16% in 2009 to 35% in 2011. Today, about 50% of all doctors and hospitals are now using EHRs. However, the heat is on: Doctors and hospitals will be liable for financial penalties under Medicare if they are not using EHRs by 2015.
Even beyond that date, HIT workers will still enjoy robust job prospects, because HIT will continue to grow along with healthcare in general for the foreseeable future. Health information technology professionals will continue to be on the front lines of implementing this emerging technology in their day-to-day work. The medical community calls upon them to find the best ways of sharing patient information between various providers, insurance companies and government agencies without compromising patient privacy. Health informatics systems must improve at incorporating clinical guidelines and standardized medical terminology.
- How to Become a Medical Records Technician
- How to Become a Medical Billing and Coding Specialist
- Becoming a Registered Health Information Technician
Also, check out our Health Careers page for more career guides.