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August 16, 2010

Going the Consultant Route
By Michelle Martin
For The Record
Vol. 22 No. 15 P. 6

As the healthcare industry evolves, more HIM professionals are stepping out from behind the desks of their in-house positions and making career shifts to more flexible—and sometimes more stimulating—consultant work.

Contract employment, while invigorating and challenging, is not necessarily a good fit for every HIM professional. But for many, a job as an independent coding professional or as a member of a staffing firm can be the perfect career destination as opposed to being a stepping-stone to a permanent position with a hospital.

Working as a consultant has many advantages, including higher salary potential. According to the AHIMA, the average annual salary for an HIM consultant is $81,561 compared with an annual income of $57,370 for all HIM professionals.

Consultants can leave office politics behind, a refreshing change for people who may have spent years battling red tape. Contract employees also have the opportunity to be educated at some of the nation’s best healthcare facilities. And as more hospitals implement EHRs, contract coders will have new opportunities to work from home via secure virtual private networks that provide access to a facility’s information system.

Additional advantages are available for consultants who choose to work for a staffing firm. As more healthcare facilities forge partnerships with experienced staffing providers to hire consultants for project work, opportunities are cropping up for HIM professionals to find steady work. Staffing firms can place qualified HIM professionals in travel, local, and remote positions. Unlike a truly independent contractor, a consultant employed by a staffing firm is not alone. Staffing firms assist consultants with job placement and help them become eligible to receive benefits such as weekly pay, health insurance, vacation, and paid sick time and holidays.

The advantages of working for a staffing firm include the following:

Higher salaries: Most staffing providers offer above-average salaries as well as competitive relocation packages and/or sign-on bonuses.

Access to jobs at leading healthcare organizations: Many staffing firms have developed close relationships with top hospitals, giving their employees an insider’s edge. A staffing firm can place consultants at facilities where they may not have been able to land a contract on their own.

Flexibility: Staffing firms allow consultants to choose a specific type of work, which assignments to accept, when to work, and in what facilities they would like to work. They are also afforded the opportunity to choose the amount of time between assignments.

Career development: Most staffing firms offer ongoing education to ensure consultants keep their skills sharp. Some have dedicated career advocates on whom consultants can rely for assistance or career advice.

Dedicated support staff: Those employed by staffing firms have access to tech support as well as other staff to assist with payroll and tax issues.

Travel assistance: Some staffing firms employ travel representatives dedicated to assisting field employees.

Are You Cut Out to Be a Consultant?
The keys to being a happy consultant are having the right personality and the necessary skills. Consultants must be flexible, easygoing, and able to adapt to new environments and enjoy working with different people. Unless they’re going to specialize in remote work, they must also be willing to travel.

When working in-house, consultants’ workspaces can vary, meaning they must be able and willing to share space or work in nonoffice environments such as a hospital cafeteria or a copy room.

Flexible schedules are also a requirement. Often, contract work is not steady, so those entering the field should be prepared to handle the occasional week with no assignment. When an assignment does come, the consultant must be comfortable working long hours (10- to 12-hour workdays are not unusual). Longer hours go hand in hand with difficult projects or large workloads as healthcare facilities typically seek outside help when work has piled up and existing staff are overwhelmed. As a result, while consultants may walk into situations that are not always pleasant, such circumstances offer the opportunity to make a significant impact to move the client in a positive direction.

For those who do not feel challenged in their permanent positions, contract work can be just the test they need. Consultants must be excellent problem solvers, particularly if they are brought in to conduct an audit. These consultants perform a variety of quality assurance reviews to identify issues and opportunities to enhance the revenue cycle. Facilities enlist their help to work with coders and ancillary staff to examine procedures and make recommendations for improvement.

Many of these staffing firm consultants present educational workshops in areas in which existing staff members need additional training and professional development. For this type of work, consultants must possess strong communication skills to create reports on audit findings and deliver presentations. They should also be confident enough to make recommendations to clients, validate findings, and relay bad news when necessary.

When HIM professionals decide to make the switch to consultant work, it’s important that they evaluate their experience level to be sure they are seasoned enough to make it on their own. To secure contracts, consultants should be able to prove they are skilled and well versed in industry best practices. In the HIM field, credentials are a key indicator of credibility; most who choose this career path will have multiple certifications such as RHIA and RHIT. In fact, to be employed as an HIM consultant with a staffing firm, candidates must be credentialed.

For experienced HIM professionals eager for a challenge and seeking more variety in their day-to-day tasks, consultant work can be a refreshing change. As the healthcare industry progresses and facilities adapt to new requirements, more opportunities are surfacing for contract work. With healthcare organizations focused on EHR adoption, there is a growing demand for remote coders and other positions that allow HIM consultants the flexibility to work from home.

In light of this development, consultants who produce high-quality results and build solid client relationships can expect to forge a long-lasting, rewarding career.

— Michelle Martin is group vice president of Kforce Healthcare Staffing, a professional staffing firm providing contract and direct hire staffing for HIM departments.