The journey from coding professional to C-suite executive isn’t really as far as it seems—just ask Cheryl Harmon, MBA, COO of St. Vincent Indiana, which is headquartered in Indianapolis, IN. Last year, Harmon—who started her health information management (HIM) career as a coder for an ambulance/EMT service—was named one of the CFOs of the year by the Indianapolis Business Journal. Harmon was recently promoted from CFO to COO effective this month.
Harmon credits her background in HIM for helping her understand, early on in her career, how healthcare organizations work.
“The beauty of an HIM degree and background was that you have both the clinical knowledge from the terminology perspective, and understand what is happening in coding, and then you have the technology aspect, and management and organizational skills,” Harmon told the Journal. “It was really a great place to learn the whole organization.”
Through curriculum changes and educational advancements such as AHIMA’s “HIM Reimagined,” AHIMA has been advocating that HIM professionals not limit themselves to just traditional HIM duties and positions. By getting a foothold in the C-suite, HIM professionals have the opportunity to showcase the depth of their knowledge, as well as elevate the visibility of HIM departments in healthcare organizations. There are many ways to get there, and Harmon’s path to the executive suite is just one.
Harmon, a native of Milwaukee, WI, was first turned on to healthcare as a career path in high school where a career assessment determined that she’d be a good fit for the field of physical therapy. However, three years into her college PT program, Harmon knew it wasn’t a match made in professional heaven. She says she went back to the drawing board, knowing that she still enjoyed aspects of healthcare. She eventually found HIM, which combined her interests in healthcare, finance, business, and management. She got her RHIA in 1981 and soon began work as a coder for an ambulance service. However, she soon moved on to managerial positions at the Milwaukee County Medical Complex where she worked in roles with increasing responsibility. There, she worked as supervisor, a DRG coordinator, and then eventually as the director of medical records.
Her career really took off when she got a cold call from a recruiter about becoming the HIM director of St. Mary’s Health Network in Reno, NV. Before taking the job she had never been to Reno, but when she and her husband checked the area out, they ended up falling in love with it, she says.
The environment of St. Mary’s really allowed her to grow and apply for positions that were new to her.
“They really allowed me to take on leadership roles in several other departments. So I was able to use my HIM background to really help me with leading the other areas as well,” Harmon says.
Leadership and Learning
It was at St. Mary’s that Harmon started to recognize her passion for data analysis and the ability to make data-driven decisions. That kind of decision making is usually done by chief financial officers, which became Harmon’s next career goal.
“When I found data analytics was at the heart of what I wanted to do, I actually went back to get my MBA. I had a goal in mind of making sure I have something that’s well-rounded enough that could support me in a CFO role, but also in another role I could take in healthcare,” Harmon says.
With the full support of her employer in Reno, Harmon pursued a full-time MBA program at the University of Texas-Austin all while working full time. Her managers at St. Mary’s promised that if she completed her MBA, she could become a CFO when she was finished. So, she commuted from Reno to Austin for parts of a week, for two years, in order to avoid a seven-year part-time degree program.
“It’s a very personal choice, people have to not be afraid to go out and do it. I made a huge investment personally, but I knew that it was going to pay off on the back end,” Harmon says.
Prior to starting her MBA, she also sought a certification for a Certified Healthcare Risk Manager, which she earned from the Chicago Medical School in 1992.
“At one point my husband said, ‘How many times are you going to go back to school?’ And I said as many times as it takes to be challenged. I always want to be challenged and fulfilled and feel like I’m contributing,” Harmon says.
For other HIM professionals looking to advance their careers like Harmon has, she says one should never be afraid to take on—and ask—for greater responsibilities.
Now, a couple jobs removed from her time in Reno, Harmon is thoroughly enjoying the challenges of being the CFO of St. Vincent Health in Indianapolis, where she is also very involved in the health system’s Rural and Urban Access to Health program. This program provides outreach to patients in urban and rural settings who need help with transportation, food pantries, rent assistance, finding insurance, enrolling in Medicaid, translation services, and many other tasks.
In her role as CFO, Harmon makes a concerted effort to highlight HIM’s expertise wherever she can.
“I know so much about what they do, but one of my goals is to make sure the rest of the organization knows what they do as well, so I think that because they are such a foundation,” Harmon says.
Harmon also honors her HIM roots by promoting clinical documentation improvement (CDI).
“One of my initiatives has always been improving clinical documentation. And in every HIM role I’ve had, CDI has been at the heart of it,” Harmon says, adding that the move to value-based care and bundled payments makes CDI essential.