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July 2014

Grad School Option Expands HIM Horizons
By Rebecca B. Reynolds, EdD, RHIA, FAHIMA, and Marcia Sharp, EdD, RHIA
For The Record
Vol. 26 No. 7 P. 8

In 2004, a major workforce study conducted by the Center for Health Workforce Studies at the State University of New York reported that employers preferred hiring applicants with graduate degrees. Ten years later, the desire for this skill set shows no signs of abating, making the demand for graduate programs stronger than ever.

HIT advances, the health care market’s growing complexity, and changes in care delivery have expanded the interest in health care information within and beyond institutional boundaries. As a result, HIM professionals and other health care professionals are expressing a need for advanced education dedicated exclusively to the profession rather than other types of master’s degrees.

The development of HIM and health informatics graduate programs was addressed in AHIMA’s Vision 2016 report, a visionary document that cites the need to transition traditional health information administration education from a bachelor’s curriculum to the master’s level.

The changing health care environment and the increasing demands on managing information are just two reasons a higher level of education makes sense. Graduate programs can mold the data management and data integrity skills students will need to improve quality and safety and to reduce medical errors and costs. In addition, health informatics and information management (HIIM) graduates must be prepared for the high-level leadership roles associated with enterprisewide information systems, strategic planning, privacy and security concerns, and patient engagement strategies.

The HIIM master’s degree was developed in accordance with the AHIMA Graduate Level Program Curriculum Guide as well as other resources such as the AHIMA report Data for Decisions: The HIM Workforce and Workplace — Recommendations to the AHIMA Board of Directors. On a national level, the industry trends that contributed to the development of the expanded graduate curriculum include the following:

• the need to meet federal EHR and regional health information exchange (HIE) initiatives;

• the expansion of HIT, eHealth, ePrescribing, telemedicine, and Internet-based information systems;

• an increased awareness of population health surveillance, biohealth, and bioterrorism;

• a growing emphasis on legal and social issues related to security and technology, especially the effects of HIPAA privacy and security regulations;

• the development and proliferation of EHRs and other forms of electronic information exchanges;

• consumer and industry focus on costs, safety, and quality of care;

• the push to use process reengineering, critical pathways, and practice guidelines to reduce costs;

• a burgeoning focus on outcomes, evidence-based medicine, and personal health; and

• the continued expansion of integrated delivery systems requiring shared databases (eg, health information networks).

Those factors combined with the proliferation of data warehouses, clinical data repositories, clinical decision-support tools, and large databases at the institutional, local, state, regional, and national levels have had far-reaching implications for HIIM professionals who are capable of understanding, retrieving, analyzing, and managing information.

Curriculum Development
The AHIMA Council for Excellence in Education, a leading body in HIM education strategy, recently published a graduate degree curriculum that has been adopted by the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education. These guidelines help HIM professionals acquire knowledge at a conceptual and application level through baccalaureate degree academic preparation.

With increasing demands for broader information services and a gradual transition to hybrid and totally electronic systems, there is a need to enhance the depth and breadth of information management capabilities through academic preparation at the master’s degree level. Designed to keep up with industry shifts without requiring major changes, the curriculum’s domains and subdomains are constructed to be neutral to new regulations yet still require graduates to be competent in various skills, including interpreting standards and their impact on the data needs of both internal and external customers.

While the curriculum addresses privacy and security from both a patient and organizational perspective, it does not specifically refer to the HITECH Act or meaningful use, a strategy that should allow programs to continually adapt to industry changes and better prepare graduates to thrive in the current work environment.

To keep pace with health care’s evolving landscape, the curriculum has added a consumer health informatics component. HIM professionals, who always have managed patient access to records and secondary data uses, have seen their roles expanded to include HIEs and patient portals. As a result, they are expected to educate consumers about HIT and eventually be part of a team designed to help patients compare personalized care models. These patient engagement strategies will continue to evolve, but the current curriculum models allow HIIM programs to be agile and adapt to industry changes.

Meeting Today’s Challenges
The availability of health informatics and HIM education at the graduate degree level is a natural step in the profession’s evolutionary progression. The curriculum, which focuses on emerging frameworks for creating integrated health care information, data management, and decision support systems, is specifically designed to prepare professionals to thrive in a technology-supported and information-driven environment. With more providers striving for meaningful use compliance, more time is being spent on required work redesign and organizational process improvement, points of emphasis in the new HIM education strategy. As a result, today’s HIM graduates are well versed in project management, vendor negotiations, ethical issues, and patient-focused recordkeeping, all of which are now considered to be essential traits for successful and long careers.

Those who further their education will find themselves better qualified to compete for positions in data resources administration, health data research, data security oversight, strategic and operational information resource planning, data governance, clinical data analytics and decision-support systems, and enterprise information systems development and implementation. It is a lengthy list of options made possible through an effort to extend education opportunities beyond their previous boundaries.

— Rebecca B. Reynolds, EdD, RHIA, FAHIMA, is an associate professor and the chair of the department of health informatics and information management at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

— Marcia Sharp, EdD, RHIA, is an associate professor and the postgraduate program director of the department of health informatics and information management at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.