When it comes to hiring new data analysts, Shawn Wells, RHIT, CHDA, says there is no question HIM professionals can easily jump into the role with the right training and attitude. “It is more than just querying databases and writing reports, you have to have an understanding of what the data says,” Wells said. “That is why HIM make the best data analysts.”
This statement brought loud applause from the audience at the 2016 CSA Leadership Symposium, taking place Friday and Saturday in Chicago, IL. The cheering likely stems from optimistic relief—for years AHIMA has warned that HIM professionals must learn data analytics and database skills in order to remain relevant in the quickly digitizing industry of health information. But some in HIM expressed fear that it would be difficult to land these jobs when in competition with other IT- and business-based professionals.
During the session “Emerging Roles in HIM: Analytics and Informatics,” Tina Esposito, MBA, RHIA, director of the center for health information systems at Advocate Health Care, and Wells, manager of HIM data integrity at University of Utah Healthcare, discussed how HIM professionals can break into the hot fields of data analytics and informatics, sharing their stories and how they have seen such roles become vital to the measurement and improvement of care at their facilities.
While Wells obviously knew his crowd, and is an HIM professional himself, he backed up his endorsement of HIM saying he has hired both business/IT-based and HIM-based data analysts, and has seen first-hand the unique and superior skills HIM professionals bring to the position. It is easier to teach a highly skilled HIM professional how to learn reports and work with databases, Wells said, than teach someone with financial data analytics skills what clinical data really means. Part of being a data analyst is being able to explain just what the data is showing, and how to use it to improve care. “No one understands healthcare data better than we do,” Wells said. “We live it every day.”
Esposito agreed, saying it can be difficult for IT professionals working in analytics roles to grasp the clinical operations and implications of the data for healthcare professionals. “You have to be able to tell a story with the data,” she said. Her department works to deliver the concept, not just the number, she said.
At her facility, analysts often work directly with clinicians to understand what reports they need, and why they need them. This requires some clinical skills in order to draw a line between the clinical problem and how that can be solved with data. “You can put a lot of smart data analysts in a room and create reports, but if they are not used it is pointless,” Esposito said.
At both Esposito’s and Wells’ organizations the data analytics division started small, but then rapidly grew once the power of their work was shown to save money and improve care processes. The growing emphasis of quality measurement, pay-for-performance, and accountable care organizations also played a role.
At both facilities at least a portion of the data analytics work is housed within the health information departments. While it seems like a natural fit, Wells said it was an “uphill battle” to position health information as the leader on data integrity and information governance within the organization. Coordination improved over time as the data integrity showed their expertise. “When a physician says ‘My numbers are better than that,’ data warehouse [staff] can’t tell them why, but HIM can,” Wells said.
Coding skills can also translate well into data analysis, Wells said. “The closest thing we have to a superpower is coding,” he said. “The first line of defense to bad data is good coding.”
While the RHIA and RHIT can help land a job in data analytics, Wells said obtaining the CHDA credential has “opened doors” for prospective data analysts both in the general industry and in his organization. Solid skills trump credentials in his opinion, advising those interested in this field to “focus on the data pieces [in your role] so you understand the workflow and clinical challenges out there.”
A master’s degree may be required to land an upper level data analytics or information governance role, Esposito said. But while education and credentials can get one through the door, experience and the ability of an HIM professional to take on data analytics projects on their own also goes a long way in landing these jobs. “It can also depend on how much you are open to. If you see a [data analytics] opening, don’t flinch,” Esposito said. “Be open to it and that level of trust you develop [with management] can allow you to try it and gain those skills.”
Chris Dimick (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor-in-chief at Journal of AHIMA.