A lot of people would be daunted by the prospect of assuming an elected role and leading an organization during a time of change and transition—within both the organization itself and the industry it represents. But Valerie Watzlaf, PhD, MPH, RHIA, FAHIMA, who will become the next president and board chair of AHIMA in January, could not be more excited for the challenge.
“I’m looking at it more as a very exciting time,” Watzlaf said. “We are in such good hands right now with our new CEO and things she’s doing. I know we’re working very hard right now on a strategy reset. I think I’m coming in at a wonderful time—it’s exciting.”
The decision to put one’s name on the ballot is always a big one for incoming presidents who usually are also juggling their board responsibilities with the demands of a full-time job, their families, and typically other volunteer work.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do—I think it has a lot to do with my family saying ‘We know you’ve wanted to do this and it’s a good time.’ Getting the timing right was important,” Watzlaf said. “So many of my mentors have done it [been AHIMA’s president] that I thought ‘If they can do it, so can I.’”
Watzlaf has been lucky to count multiple leaders in the field and within AHIMA as mentors. Mervat N. Abdelhak, PhD, RHIA, FAHIMA, was president of AHIMA in 2005 and is an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, which is where Watzlaf obtained all of her degrees and where she is currently an associate professor and vice chair of education in the
Department of Health Information Management. Watzlaf also credits Patty Thierry Sheridan, MBA, RHIA, FAHIMA, who was president in 2012, and the late Mark Dietz, RHIA, a distinguished member and educator, as leaders who have inspired and guided her. Dietz was an adjunct instructor at the university when Watzlaf was a student. She expressed a desire to teach before she even graduated.
“I had told him I wanted to teach and he said ‘Oh, you could teach now.’ There was a chancellor’s undergrad teaching scholarship and he wrote a letter of support and I was able to teach with Mark the following year when I was a senior and he was teaching our quality management lab. Then I was hooked,” Watzlaf said.
Watzlaf says that the passion of AHIMA’s volunteers is unlike anything she’s ever seen in other industries and professions. Both AHIMA and the AHIMA Foundation rely on volunteers to help develop curricula, plan conventions, staff the board of directors and conduct and publish research—all of which are essential for a vibrant organization.
“I think we’re unreal with that [volunteering] which is fantastic. I also tell our current students to volunteer. I tell them ‘You learn so much and you can give back so much,’” Watzlaf said.
And Watzlaf should know—she has been volunteering for AHIMA at the national, state, and regional level for almost as long as she’s worked in the health information management (HIM) field. She has served on the Western Pennsylvania Health Information Management Association’s student affairs committee, as well as in elected positions for the Pennsylvania Health Information Management Association. At AHIMA, Watzlaf has served as an AHIMA Board member, as a chairperson for the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM), as chairperson for the Council for Excellence in Education, and served two terms on the AHIMA Foundation’s Board of Directors.
Watzlaf has set several goals for herself for her tenure as board chair. “My main goal is to make sure that whatever comes out of the strategy reset is kept on track and to keep it moving. The other things I definitely want to promote are lifelong learning, higher education, research, and innovation because that’s the foundation of HIM and AHIMA,” Watzlaf said.
This will undoubtedly inform her convention speech on Tuesday morning during General Session, which she said will focus on the questions of how HIM professionals can find their voice and passion within the industry, and how every individual can leave their mark.