Ellen S. Karl, MBA, RHIA, CHDA, FAHIMA

By Ellen S. Karl, MBA, RHIA, CHDA, FAHIMA

In today’s healthcare arena, the requirements for educated professionals have increased dramatically. However, the field of health information management (HIM) has not kept pace. In my current role as an educator, I attempted to promote my adjunct faculty, but I found it difficult to do so because the HIM terminal degree remains at a baccalaureate-degree level.

In many other fields, both within healthcare and external to HIM, the doctorate is considered to be the terminal degree. Many moons ago when I launched my career in HIM, my colleagues in the physical therapy and pharmacy fields were also baccalaureate-prepared. We were all equals—all department directors in a given hospital. But professionals in these fields (and their associations or state departments of health) wanted more. Pretty soon, doctorate degrees were required for pharmacists and physical therapists who are required to have a PharmD and a DPT, respectively. In HIM, however, the push to earn advanced degrees stagnated at the bachelor’s-degree level.

Personally, the decision to continue my own education beyond a bachelor’s degree was to bolster my opportunities. Senior-level HIM positions in the large, urban, multi-hospital systems usually require master’s-prepared HIM professionals to fulfill their leadership teams. When I transitioned to academia after working in acute care for 25 years, a new white paper, “Vision 2016: A Blueprint for Quality Education in Health Information Management,” had been written by a committee of educators (the AHIMA Education Strategies Committee) on the importance of HIM members moving their education to the next level. That was in 2007. In 2016, “Vision 2016” morphed into “Reality 2016,” and here we still are with the terminal degree being the bachelor’s degree.

I do believe that today there are a larger number of masters- and doctorate-prepared HIM professionals than when these papers were written. Some of this has to do with educational offerings. Do we have enough universities offering a master’s in HIM so that we can elevate the terminal degree to the master’s? Not yet. There are only a few CAHIIM-accredited master’s degree programs, with several in the pipeline. For me at the time, I sought out an MBA with a concentration in health administration since there weren’t any HIM master’s programs when I was looking for one. In order to elevate the profession, we need the expectation to be that the master’s in HIM is the terminal degree. But until we have enough people with that degree and enough colleges offering the degree, we cannot move the ball forward.

There is an imperative in today’s healthcare world for the skills necessary for higher-level positions in HIM. In my HIM program at City University of New York (CUNY), we have a full course for students in database management and project management. Sometimes students ask, “Why do we need these courses?” If HIM professionals are to remain relevant in this healthcare environment, we need to evolve, adapt, and change. You don’t need to be a database manager or a full-time project manager, but you need to know these skills so that your expertise can be relied upon. Picking up specialty credentials can also help your career trajectory, such as the Certified Health Data Analyst (CHDA) or Certified in Healthcare Privacy and Security (CHPS) credentials.

In my younger professional days, I was asked to create my capital budget for the HIM department. I decided to put anything and everything that I thought I needed into that budget. There was something new and innovative called an optical disc player that could store copies of medical record documents. I had a hard time procuring prices to include in my budget, but I did include it. It did not get funded, but I was trying hard to be forward thinking and pushing myself and the organization to look down that future road.

Have you looked down the road at your own career? Have you pushed yourself to the next academic level? Education is a key marker to help you get to where you want to go. You just need to get started. Today.

 

Ellen S. Karl (ellen.karl@cuny.edu) is the academic director for health information management and health services administration programs at CUNY School of Professional Studies.

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11 Comments

  1. I fully believe in continuing education. I also believe, that not everyone should need to have advanced degrees to do their job. I say that because I have over 30 years experience working in the medical records area. It has included pharmacy technician where I was an assistant manager in the HIM department. I have been running my own small records business reviewing and summarizing medical records for attorneys. I don’t have a degree. I went to a vocational school and started working in HIM and discovered how good at it I was and how much I enjoyed it. I am now in the process due to Covid, working on getting my medical coding and medical billing certifications. I worked for managers who had advanced degrees in HIM and didn’t know how to do the job. I also have found a lot of people who work in medical records who don’t know how to spell HIPAA much less know what it means. Also, for me, I couldn’t begin to afford to get a college degree. I also have a learning disability which prevents me from getting a degree. It doesn’t mean I am not good at my job. I also however, feel that everyone deserves to be able to get a college degree if they choose to. Several of us discussed this on a Linkedln page a couple of months ago. College is completely unaffordable these days. I do think that we all need to keep up with what is going on in HIM. It’s not easy. Thank you for the article. I did find it interesting.

  2. This is an interesting article. I was surprised to learn that HIM terminal degree remains at baccalaureate -degree level. Presently, I am pursuing a Masters’s degree in Health Informatics Administration at UMGC with the hope of pursuing a career in Public Health Informatics and Oral Health Informatics. I am a dentist with a master’s degree in public health. One of the strengths of my HIM graduate program at UMGC is the application of project management (PM) principles in certain courses. PM can be applied in many industries to great effect. I intend to take the PMP certification exam as soon as I complete my master’s next year. Thanks for sharing this article with us.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Ellen. I graduated with my BS in HIM in 1984, and when I decided to pursue a Master’s, I chose Public Administration with a healthcare concentration (graduating in 1991). I also have a CHPS credential. I recently obtained my PMP-Project Management Professional- certification. I’ve done a great deal of project management over my career, and worked with many PMs for software vendors on implementation. Of course it requires CEUs (known as PDUs), many of which can be obtained for free, to maintain the certification. So although I chose early on to pursue a Master’s degree, I can also see the point of view Yolanda Patterson, speaking to all the resources that are required, especially for older professionals, to pursue an advanced degree. It will definitely require careful thought to figure out if we need a higher level terminal degree, and what effect that will have on our profession.

  3. Interesting article. I do hope that we all keep in mind that higher education is very expensive. Placing it over experience will ice out a lot of HIM professionals that may not have the finances to go back to school. Some jobs do not provide tuition reimbursement and scholarships are extremely competitive. There are a multitude of ways to enhance the learning in this career field without potentially requiring HIM professions to accrue a multitude of debt just to be able to work.

    1. I agree with you. I don’t have a college degree but I have worked in medical records for over 30 years. I have worked under managers with degrees in HIM and didn’t know how to do the job. I run my own small medical records company reviewing and summarizing medical records for attorneys. I feel that everyone should be able to get a college degree if they choose to, however, I don’t feel that it is necessary either. I enjoy learning myself but I certainly can’t afford college. I have been studying medical coding and billing to add to my skills for my business. Thank you!

  4. I’m glad that you’d mentioned PM course. I think it’s a must for anyone in leadership positions. My staff and I are having difficulties with how our leaders take on outside projects in addition to our job tasks. It seemed they choose to ignore the basic PM principles, demanding us to perform at full speed, despite the lack of preparations. This type of course should’ve been added to the annual courses that every leaders need to complete.

    P.S. My apology if this is redundant, not sure if my previous response went through.

  5. I agree with Ms. Karl need to further our ever evolving field. I got my MBA late in the 70’s and it helped to advance in the HIM leadership. However, I refused to get additional credentials because AHIMA charged additional membership and CEUs requirements.
    Over my long and varied HIM trajectory I am amazed how many of my peers chose to stay within their 2- and 4-year degrees. I am a lifelong student and take advanced health related courses to help me understand those who I supervise or hire as consultants such as data base management, project management , MS Visio, Access, Graph design etc.
    I definitely concur with the importance of a higher degree. Unfortunately, there are not as many employment opportunities as there are for PharmDs and DPTs who are needed for direct clinical care.

  6. The article is very well said, however, let us get down to the basics. The cost, time, and commitment it takes to go beyond a bachelor level education.

    Are we not, right now, in the throes of trillions of dollars in student loan debt? Even with companies offering tuition reimbursement, you still must pay first. Where is the money coming from when you have bills, children, basic living expenses?

    Let’s not eve talk about the “for profit” educational school who promise you the world and deliver nothing but being further in debt.

    Yes, there are scholarships, grants, and such, but as an adult learner currently going back to school to pursue my MBA, I am mostly left to pay for it all out of pocket. Why? Because tuition reimbursement only covers so much, scholarships are geared towards high-schoolers, or first time college attenders. Leaving me to figure out is it even worth it to pursue any further education? And at what cost?

    No one wants to be in student loan debt until they die, however, it seems as though this will become the norm. So when stating the pros of furthering your education, please speak about the how to get funding to do so, and also how to have the self talk about whether it will really be worth the cost, time, and sacrifice of doing so.

    Yes, I believe that education is a key to opening doors to knowledge, advancement, and having a better understanding of your field. I see people constantly pushing the advance your career with education. But please, tell the WHOLE story, not just the “feel good” parts of pursuing your education.

  7. Well written! Thanks for implementing the MSHIM at CUNYSPS this is really a meaningful career that needs to be treated like any other. HIM is a very imperative arena and me need everything in our power to make it preservable. Thank you for addressing this nicely. Because of you I have the opportunity to advance my HIM career. You are a blessing to SPS. Keep up the good work.

  8. Very practical article. I was surprised to know that HIM terminal degree remains at a baccalaureate-degree level.
    You are absolutely right, having a PM course gives one well rounded education. Since PM principles can be used for any field, it makes sense to include that course.

  9. Definitely agree with what is said here. I see more of an emphasis in the industry where advanced degrees are emphasized but as a holder of an MBA the thought of pursuing a PhD felt odd because I don’t have a clinical background. I definitely think as technology continues to advance, pursuing PhDs and Masters degrees in areas like Public Health are going to be incredibly important as HIM industry changes. We definitely need to bridge the gap and provide our future professionals with advanced tech skills as well. That might require us “veterans” to lead by example so they can see what pathways lead to success in the HIM industry.

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