To be successful in the field of health information management (HIM), it’s important to understand that formalized schooling is only enough to get a person started in the field. Earning a RHIA (a credential requiring a bachelor’s or master’s degree in HIM) or RHIT (a credential that requires at least an associate’s degree in HIM) is a beginning, not an endpoint—it signals to potential employers that in absence of any applicable work history, that credential holders have achieved mastery of entry-level competencies to get started in the field.
That’s according to advice that Lynn Wozniak, MS, RHIT, content manager, revenue cycle, coding and compliance, at Elsevier, clinical solutions, says she would give to a newly-credentialed HIM professional with an RHIA or RHIT.
“Earning and maintaining credentials shows that a person is committed to their career and staying current in the field. It opens doors because employers recognize [that] the type of person who earns and maintains credentials is usually committed and knowledgeable,” Wozniak says.
And Wozniak knows. Not only is she an experienced HIM professional, she served for four years on the Commission on Certification for Health Informatics and Information Management (CCHIIM), and as chair of CCHIIM. CCHIIM is an AHIMA commission of elected and appointed volunteers dedicated to ensuring the competency of professionals practicing health informatics and HIM. It does this by establishing, implementing, and enforcing standards and procedures for certification and recertification of HIM professionals.
CCHIIM plays a key role in ensuring that today’s HIM professionals have the needed skills and competencies to navigate the healthcare landscape currently shifting under their feet. CCHIIM members are constantly reviewing all the certifications AHIMA offers to make sure they’re clinically and technologically relevant, determining whether there needs to be new certifications, or recommending that certification programs be discontinued.
If an HIM professional wants to maximize their skills and knowledge—which AHIMA’s HIM Reimagined initiative strongly urges—AHIMA offers multiple ways to do that through certificates and certification programs. There often is confusion as to the difference between certificate programs and certifications. This article aims to ease some of the confusion.
AHIMA’s specialty certifications are an invaluable way for HIM professionals to prove they have mastery over HIM domains. According to Desla Mancilla, DHA, RHIA, vice president, academic affairs and certification, at AHIMA, certification is best used to document an existing workforce. She points to the Institute for Credentialing Excellence’s (ICE) definition of a certification versus a certificate. According to ICE, certifications recognize professionals who meet established knowledge, skills, or competencies. It assesses knowledge, skills, and/or competencies with the goal of validating the participant’s competency through a conformity assessment system. A certification is broader in scope than a certificate, and the assessment is much more rigorous.
The visual representation of the rigor of the certification process is a “credential,” which in this context is reflected in the letters listed after a professional’s name, such as RHIA, RHIT, CHDA, or CDIP.
“When you hire someone who goes through an AHIMA program or a certification exam, that person is going to be 20 steps above anyone else because of what they have to go through in terms of education just to earn it and maintain it,” says CCHIIM commissioner Shauntara Jones, RHIA, CHDA, CHPS, director of HIM and privacy manager at AltaMed.
“That’s one thing that I really like about AHIMA over some of the other healthcare associations that offer certificates. The testing and the rigor that goes behind the exams, it’s very well thought out. It’s more application-based and scenario-based. You don’t just memorize things and spit it out,” Jones says.
For Jones, earning additional certifications above her RHIA helped her grow the knowledge she needed for the job she had and for jobs that she wanted. Jones decided to get the CHDA certification when she was in a job that required better understanding of data and quality measures.
“That credential really helped me understand data as a whole and it really helped me get my feet wet into data and the statistical analysis,” Jones says.
One of her career goals was to be a privacy officer, so when AHIMA started offering the CHPS credential, she knew that was the best way to get her foot in the door.
Certifications also require robust recertification requirements to ensure credential holders stay current with the knowledge and expertise required in an evolving industry. CCHIIM is dedicated to keeping the credentials current and reflective of the industry.
“By constantly reevaluating and adapting the exams we can ensure that it’s keeping pace with the changes happening in the workplace, and that our recently credentialed people also have current knowledge and expertise. The more difficult piece is making sure that people who have held a credential for a long time are also current in knowledge and expertise. The employers expect and depend on this,” Wozniak adds.
A number of different types of entities can offer certificates. Academic settings such as community colleges that offer RHITs in HIM might offer certificates in coding or privacy, that can take a matter of months to complete. And other associations and trade groups like AHIMA or the National Association for Healthcare Quality offer certificate programs. Certificates are for people who want more education or continuing education in a specific area but don’t have the time or money to work towards a degree. Mancilla says there are even post-graduate certificate programs for people with advanced degrees that want to further their expertise in a specialty.
While certifications mean professionals get to list a credential after their name, individuals who earn certificates through AHIMA can use a “badge” after their name. When badges are used in email signatures, email recipients can click on the badge that has a link to more information about what that certificate entails.
According to ICE’s definition of certificates, the goal is for participants to acquire specific skills, knowledge, or competencies. The assessment for a certificate may still include an assessment, but it’s narrower in content and scope and less rigorous than what’s usually required for a certification.
AHIMA offers several certificates that can help HIM professionals demonstrate that they’ve undergone a level of training and education to obtain a particular skill.
“As we look to the future, because of changing industry needs as well as changing academic structures, we’re creating a stairstep pathway that helps people move up the academic level. That’s the goal of HIM Reimagined. The reality is a lot of people can’t afford to go to school for two years or four years, but they might want to do something else along the way,” Mancilla says. And that’s one way certificates come in.
One popular example of a certificate that AHIMA has offered in the past is the AHIMA-approved ICD-10-CM/PCS Trainer.
Due in part to the success of the ICD-10-CM/PCS Trainer program, AHIMA is launching a new series of certificates for AHIMA-Approved Trainers in other HIM domains. They include: Revenue Cycle Trainers, Privacy Trainers, Informatics Trainers, Data Analytics Trainers, and CDI Trainers.
According to promotional material for these certificates, the “AHIMA-approved Trainer” designation will differentiate those individuals who are considered advanced-level professionals and have met AHIMA’s stringent requirements in terms of subject knowledge, skills, and educational presence.
Like other certificates offered by AHIMA and other organizations, individuals must meet specific prerequisites and participate in intensive workshops and pass an assessment at the end of the workshop. While some certificate programs offered elsewhere do not require a recertification process, AHIMA’s certificates do. For example, ICD-10 trainers need to prove they are knowledgeable about the annual ICD code updates.
“Getting certificates is a great way to learn about a topic or issue or technology,” Wozniak says. “And if you keep doing it you can use certificates as stepping stones to the next project or position, because they also show that you are motivated to learn and put your own time and resources into gaining the knowledge.”