They're the bridge between doctors and electronic records
Published: Thursday, December 12, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 11, 2013 at 7:51 p.m.
The medical field traditionally has operated with a lot of behind-the-scenes jobs, but the advent of both electronic health records and the Affordable Care Act has particularly spurred a rise in health information technology jobs, and some students in Gainesville are training for the challenge.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, some of the health care occupations that will increase the most are medical office specialists, medical records technicians, medical assistants and community health workers.
Already, support positions such as these account for 42 percent of the health care workforce, according to the College for America at Southern New Hampshire University.
Health information technology, or HIT, specialists perform roles such as entering patient data into electronic health records and making sure doctors enter the correct reimbursement codes for procedures.
Even small errors in such tasks can have serious implications — both financial and clinical.
“If the code is wrong, it could be fraudulent,” said Julie Shay, the director of HIT management programs at Santa Fe College. “If mental health codes are coded incorrectly, the impact could be big ... with an epilepsy diagnosis, driver's licenses are taken away.”
In last week's end-of-semester class, Shay asked her students about the practicums or internships they undertook at several area institutions, from UF Health Psychiatric Hospital and the ACORN clinic serving rural patients, to Vitera Healthcare Solutions, a health care software company based in Tampa.
“For me, it's a retraining program,” said Mark Wooten, 56, who has worked in health care institutions for several years, in food administration.
“Some parts of it are dull as dishwater. Other parts are interesting,” Wooten said of the program. “There's a lot of background in the culture of health care and (the culture of) information technology. These people usually don't speak to each other very often.”
But students like Wooten are being trained to be the bridge between those two worlds.
They get versed in subjects such as physiology and pharmacology — similar training to what nurses get — but their practical experience is in information technology and administration.
What that often means is they translate the complicated coding and billing procedures from Medicare, for example, into the bills you or your insurance company end up paying.
“Medicare has more than a dozen billing methodologies,” Wooten said. “The complications in the system require people like us to sort it out.”
Sorting out often requires some clinical knowledge as well, Wooten continued.
“Someone has to look through the medical record and say, 'That was this procedure, and it has to be justified by a certain clinical diagnosis,' ” he said.
Shay said the need for these people “is huge ... every hospital, every physician's office has a health information department, and that department requires specialized individuals who know how to code, how to keep the patient's health information private and secure, navigation of health information exchanges, understanding reimbursement methodologies and managed care. I could go on and on.”
The Santa Fe program, which lasts two years, officially makes students registered health information technicians. Salaries can vary widely, but the average salary of RHITs nationally in 2010 was $54,880, according to the American Health Information Management Association.
The Santa Fe program has been around for about a decade, but student interest has increased recently, and Shay said she expects that to continue.
Robin Wildman heard about the program from a newspaper article about degrees that could help unemployed people get back to the workforce quickly.
For 30 years, she worked in insurance claims but was laid off. Wildman, who just turned 60, said she had to take several math classes to enroll in the program and get up to speed with modern classroom technology.
“It's been very challenging for someone who has been out of school for so long,” Wildman said. “They had to teach me how to use a thumb drive.
“I feel this is going to prepare me for a market that's out there,” she added.
Wildman said she would like to work in quality assurance, and she's hoping to find a job in which she can work from home, which many of the HIT jobs she's encountered entail.
“It's something that I'm going to be able to do wherever I move,” she said.
While both Wooten and Wildman are older students, the age range is broad in Shay's class, and for some students, this will be their first professional degree.
“It's nice to see the younger people in this field ... it's really going to carry them through their retirement,” Wildman said.
Nationally, the HIT sector is projected to grow 30 percent through 2020, Shay said. Over 50 percent of her graduates from May have jobs. She said she is hoping to implement a four-year degree in health informatics and information management as well.
Apart from the job growth, Wooten said the content created by the HIT sector is useful for comparing health care systems.
“It's very useful analytics for public health care. You can compare outcomes between different health facilities,” Wooten said. “The more standardized the information is, the more we can look at the health care system and evaluate it.”
Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.