As healthcare technology and regulations evolve at sometimes breakneck speed, employers may expect health information (HI) professionals to adapt and acquire new skills just as quickly. Experienced professionals and those new to HI may increasingly turn to non-degree programs, such as microcredentials and certificates, to swiftly "upskill" and enter the workforce or a more specialized role.
While non-degree programs are newer concepts in some industries, their popularity will likely rise as more professionals and employers realize the benefits, says Jeremy Wolos, PhD, director in the education industry business at Huron, a global professional services firm headquartered in Chicago that works closely with academic institutions.
"I don't think there's any reason to expect that the non-degree market will slow down in the coming years, given the pace at which health professions are changing and the need to continually gain new skills and knowledge" like data analytics and technological proficiencies, he says.
Recent findings from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which regularly tracks higher education enrollment, indicate that interest in certificate programs is rising, with registration up more than 5 percent for undergraduates and 4.6 percent for graduate-level credentials. In contrast, the number of community college students pursuing associate and bachelor programs remains stagnant compared to pre-pandemic enrollment.
Generational Differences Driving Higher Ed Overhaul
Generational differences are just one factor contributing to this shifting dynamic, says Marjorie Rosen, MBA-MDR, RHIA, director of advocacy for the Arizona Health Information Management Association and healthcare program director at Bryan University in Tempe, AZ.
She says traditional routes, like associate, bachelor, and master degree programs, can require several years and thousands of dollars to complete and don't always offer much scheduling flexibility for working students.
In 2017, the university did a deep dive into emerging data on employment trends and the critical skills employers look for when staffing health information management (HIM) departments. A few things stood out.
"Often, Generation X has considered a bachelor's degree as the starting education level they need to make money, but younger generations don't value the degree as much," Rosen says. "Those students want certificates and microcredentials with a fast turnaround time so they can quickly identify what they're good at and passionate about and get jobs."
Skill-Based Credentials a Boon for Employers and Learners
But employers' expectations have changed, too. Rosen says employers now value skills more than a degree as they attempt to identify candidates who can fulfill specific job requirements amid workforce shortages.
According to a survey by Coursera, a company offering online courses and professional certificates, individuals with industry microcredentials are, on average, 72 percent more likely to get the job than those without. And since more than three-quarters of employers are already using or exploring skill-based hiring, it's an avenue that experts say employees should keep in mind to stand out in a competitive job market.
The mounting evidence prompted Rosen to revamp the school's HIM pathways.
"I created a stacked approach by aligning my entire HIM program — from certificate to bachelor level — as one big vertical, allowing students to exit at different points that make sense for them," she says.
Now, a recent high school graduate or someone interested in changing careers midlife can complete a medical billing and coding certificate program, for example, become a Certified Coding Associate (CCA) and begin working in that position in less than a year, says Rosen.
They can keep working in the field but later return to pursue an associate or bachelor's degree, collecting more industry certifications and microcredentials along the way, again choosing to take a break once they reach their preferred level of education or when life circumstances dictate.
According to Rosen, microcredentials can be earned even faster than certificates, usually in under six months and often for just a few hundred dollars. Coursework is limited in scope and focused on one topic or competency so participants can develop or sharpen an in-demand skill set.
The Upside of Upskilling
Upskilling can have significant upsides. According to a 2021 Gallup survey, workers who participate in short-term programs to learn new skills or enhance existing ones earn, on average, $8,000 more annually than their peers.
"A microcredential can help get your foot in the door to HIM much earlier and gain some industry experience," says Angela Campbell, MSHI, RHIA, FAHIMA, delegate of the Illinois Health Information Management Association and assistant professor of health information technology at San Juan College in Farmington, NM.
"There are many entry-level jobs in release of information (ROI). If I'm hiring for this position, I would be more likely to look at someone with an ROI microcredential than someone without, if neither candidate had experience," she says, adding that the credential shows they know the subject and have demonstrated proficiency by passing an exam.
Many employers agree. A 2023 University Professional and Continuing Education Association survey found that nearly all business leaders saw definite benefits to microcredentials, with 80 percent expressing a preference for stackable credentials. Most employers felt that completing the training demonstrated employee initiative and a willingness to develop their skills.
Non-Degree Credentials Can Close the Coming Knowledge Gap
Experts say providing an avenue for people to enter HI jobs sooner is critical to bridging the looming knowledge gap expected to occur as Baby Boomers retire and take their decades of experience with them.
"The majority of dual credit high school students in my medical terminology class have no idea what HIM is," says Campbell. "Expanding microcredentials can introduce people to the industry sooner and entice them to pursue it instead of thinking they must complete a degree even to begin working in the field."
Once someone gets a job in an HIM department, she says they can "see, hear, feel, touch, and really understand what's going on there and put all that theory into practice." The exposure shows the true range and promise of the career, piquing their interest to keep acquiring more knowledge and credentials, she says.
Rosen reports a similar transformation among her students. She says those who began in the coding certificate program over a year ago are already halfway through their bachelor's coursework. "They've decided they want to understand and influence policy, so they're pursuing their master of public health. Their mindset has shifted while they've been in school and working because they've seen HIM firsthand," she says.
While some non-degree programs target learners without a degree seeking access to an entry-level job, Wolos says even professionals with a bachelor's or more advanced degree may look to shorter-duration courses to refresh their skills, particularly as the industry transitions to value-based care.
"Increasingly, folks are seeing that they may need to enhance their understanding of certain topics to move forward in their careers or into leadership roles within their organizations," says Wolos. The push for greater interoperability through technology and data-sharing may lead HI professionals to invest in obtaining skills related to risk adjustment, data management, and predictive analytics.
Additionally, specific technology and practices, like clinical documentation integrity and auditing, didn't exist when some HI professionals initially pursued their degrees or have grown to encompass a larger share of responsibilities, says Campbell.
The current workforce needs a practical way to gain relevant expertise, so she says educational institutions and professional organizations are becoming more creative in providing ways to verify skills to employers, including issuing badges and microcredentials.
And since most HI professionals must already earn continuing education units (CEUs) to maintain their certifications, Campbell says these focused courses can have dual benefits. "Why not do something that highlights your skills and interest plus allows you to earn CEUs, so you can stand out even further?" she says.
Ultimately, Rosen says the stacked approach to education can incentivize more people to acquire specialized knowledge or earn a bachelor's or advanced degree. As artificial intelligence eventually replaces some of HI professionals' work, she says they'll need to pivot to analytic or technological oversight positions, such as project management and auditing.
"We're reaching the cliff where there aren't enough experienced or academically trained people to match the technological demands of the industry," she says. "If I'm a coder, then I need to be the one who understands the language and modeling of AI. I need to understand the gaps left by it so I can live within those spaces and remain relevant."
Although higher education for health information looks different these days, experts say the changes are necessary to keep up with industry needs and regulatory changes. Microcredentials and certificates offer learners more educational pathways to refine their skills and advance their careers.
"Employers set the pace for curriculum, and they want skills and microcredentials to demonstrate what you're good at," Rosen says. "So I say embrace the change and use the opportunity to cash in and differentiate yourself from the next person."
Steph Weber is a Midwest-based freelance journalist specializing in healthcare and law.
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