Medical records leaping from file cabinet to computer age

By Teresa Odle CTW Features

Once called medical records clerks, today’s health information technicians and managers assemble, organize and keep safe the massive amount of data collected every time we visit a physician or hospital. With more of our records filed electronically, it’s an increasingly technical job and one with many career paths.

Kozie Phibbs enrolled in a medical record technology program right out of high school more than 36 years ago. She’s been in the health information field ever since, but today she’s a sales manager for Digital Voice Systems Inc., a company that sells products used by other health information professionals.

“I love it,” Phibbs said. “This career path helped me grow as a person and as a professional.”

Like many health information professionals, Phibbs began her career working in a hospital. She helped code records for insurance payment. Other health information technicians assemble records from various sources and use software to maintain data on disease patterns, such as cancer. Health information managers ensure the information is correctly managed and safeguarded. They may work with physicians and other health managers to manage research and improve quality.

Angela M. Hammond is assistant director of health information management at Union Hospital in Dover, Ohio. She supervises 28 people on three shifts and oversees imaging records, coding, transcription and release of patient information. She’s also an adjunct professor at a local community college.

An associate degree gets you into the field, but most employers require the Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT) credential, which requires passing a national exam after training. Being credentialed opened doors early in Phibbs’ career. She got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees over the next 20 years.

Discipline, organization and attention to detail are important skills for health information professionals. “It’s also important to be able to think on your feet and multi-task,” Hammond said. Computer skills are a big plus.

One reason the job requires quick thinking is that change is constant. For Phibbs and Hammond, that’s a plus. “There is always something new to learn,” Hammond said.

Phibbs said that it’s exciting to be a part of the future of health care in the electronic age. But she cautions that not all of her colleagues see it that way. “Oftentimes, our expertise is overlooked or not realized,” she said. Another drawback is that the job is never done, Hammond said. “You don’t get the opportunity to see an end to a project you may be working on, because the cycle is always revolving.”

Those interested in pursuing a career in health information should “find a local college that offers either a two-year program in health information technology or a four-year program in health information management and enroll,” Phibbs said. She says it’s best to get your education out of the way and hit the pavement running. Hammond started working in a trauma center while still a student, which helped pave the way for later advancement. Both recommend being involved in the profession for the satisfaction and for networking. Hammond is president of the Ohio Health Information Management Association, and Phibbs volunteers at the local and national levels.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics set health information technician pay at nearly $31,000 in 2008. A 2006 survey from the American Health Information Management Association put full-time managers’ average pay at about $56,000. It increases to $75,000 with a bachelor’s degree and $86,000 with a master’s.

These jobs should grow by about 20 percent through 2018 as the population ages and as hospitals and other medical providers go paperless.