HIM professionals who go from practice to teaching (or teach part-time while practicing) bring a wealth of real-life experience to their classes. They also bring some subtler lessons they have learned about succeeding in the workplace.
Jill Burrington-Brown, who teaches in an online HIM program at Missouri Western State University, shares with her students the communication skills she has learned in a career that has covered a range of settings and roles.
Burrington-Brown, MS, RHIA, FAHIMA, has been an HIM director; managed quality improvement, medical staff, and risk management departments; taught; worked in a law firm; and for eight years, she was a professional practice manager at AHIMA. Communication skills may not be a chapter in standard HIM and health IT textbooks, but she assures her students that communicating well will fundamental to doing their jobs well.
Burrington-Brown really started to learn about communication when she began managing a risk management department that encompassed patient relations. Until then, she says, she hadn’t considered that people who are upset may not know exactly what they are upset about. “They just know they are upset,” she says. “They had a bad experience at your facility, and you had to find out what made that experience bad.”
The job taught her that “you really have to listen hard to people who are upset. Because what they’re complaining about is often not what they are really upset about.”
Many times, she says, once discovered, the fundamental problem turned out to be easy to fix. Often a patient call that began with a threat of litigation was resolved with an apology.
But one of the first things she learned from that job, she says, is what she didn’t know about communicating. Fortunately, the CFO she reported to was interested in the communication process and offered staff classes on better communication.
“That’s where I found out, too, that if you don’t agree on what you’re talking about, you could walk away from the table and have totally different ideas of what went on. Communication is much more basic than any of us believe it to be. It’s got to be at a level where everyone understands what the topic is.”
It may sound simple, but she assures her students that it requires conscious effort.
Being Open to Communication
She also has learned how important it is to be open to communication with staff and colleagues. That can be invaluable when difficult situations arise.
“You have to be approachable, because people aren’t going to tell you things you don’t want to hear,” she says. “And they have to—you have to get them to tell you those things.”
Working in a long-term care facility, Burrington-Brown once had to approach a staff member who appeared to be involved in billing misconduct. If something was wrong, she says, she wanted to find out about it from the staff member, not from the Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services.
When she left practice to begin teaching, Burrington-Brown didn’t simply take with her the communication lessons she had learned, she took the classes that her former CFO had taught for staff. “I said [to my class], ‘These are things you guys have to know if you want to go out into the healthcare world. You have to know how to communicate with people.’”
In the first class she taught, Burrington-Brown gave a two-hour lecture on communicating. “I came back the next time and several people in the class said, ‘We would like to have another two hours on that,’” she says.
After working in risk management, Burrington-Brown worked in a law firm specializing in healthcare. It was an opportunity to test out her interest in law school. She didn’t stay in law, but the experience gave her a firsthand look at a wide range of cases that she took to later jobs and ultimately to teaching.
The firm handled six or seven hospitals in the Seattle area. “I got to look at all sorts of different cases and see what kinds of things happened, how they happened, and what legal principles were violated—some really great examples for students,” she says. “What could have been avoided with proper training? What was something that maybe couldn’t have been avoided?”
The experience provided her with more material for her communications lessons, too. The cases she reviewed contained “tons of examples of poor communication,” she says.
Of course, real-life stories also make teaching fun, she says. Students “can’t believe some of the stuff—I can’t believe some of the stuff—that has gone on.”
Many of Burrington-Brown’s students are beginning second and third careers, and so they bring their own career experiences with them. “I have several students in my HIT 101 who work in hospitals and are bringing a real richness to the discussion boards,” she says.
Share Your Experience
Educators, what “extracurricular” lessons has the working world brought to your teaching? Students, what real-world lessons have teachers shared that helped prepare you for your career? Comment below!