Health Information Technician Careers

The Basics

We all need to go to the doctor from time to time, and when we do, a record of the visit including the doctor’s observations, the patient’s complaints and a course of treatment, is generated.  At one time these records were all hand written and contained in a physical chart. These days, as more and more medical facilities go online, electronic databases contain these records. A health information technician is instrumental in the keeping of these records, interfacing with insurance companies, and in ensuring compliance with the law.

What is a Health Information Technician?

A health information technician is more than an electronic file clerk; a hospital or medical clinic cannot operate without one.  In this day and age of privacy concerns over electronic data breaches, a health information technician does much more than just make sure that information in filed correctly in an electronic database.

A health information technician bridges the gap between direct patient care and the business end of patient care. While specific duties vary depending on the job setting, a health information technician makes sure that information gets to all the places that it needs to go, clearly, completely and in a timely fashion. A health information technician also ensures that patient files are accurate, complete and most important, secure.

What is a Registered Health Information Technician?

A registered health information technician is a health information technician who has met certain certification requirements administered by the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) in the United States. In order to become registered or certified, a person must have an associate degree from a school accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM), or the equivalent. Courses may include such things as medical coding, statistics, reimbursement procedures including insurance, medical information technology and the like. After completing the required schooling, a registered health information technician must have also taken and passed the license certification examination.

What Does a Health Information Technician Do?

A health information technician will more than likely spend several hours a day in front of a computer. Some of this time will be spent coding. Medical coding is a fundamental requirement of the position. It involves translating a diagnosis, treatment, and any medical procedures including medical equipment into alphanumeric codes–a type of shorthand– for record and billing purposes. These medical codes are applied in a standardized manner using one of a number of standardized coding classification systems. These codes are useful for billing and insurance reimbursement.

A health information technician also makes sure that all doctor’s entries are complete and that a patient’s records are complete. This may mean ensuring that the file contains all consent forms including HIPAA forms and that all patient records are complete and up to date. This may be a vital part of the job for a health information technician who works in a hospital or other integrated healthcare delivery system. This allows the accurate and timely sharing of a patient’s records within that system say, when an internist makes a referral to a specialist within the system, or when a doctor prescribes a medication electronically within the same healthcare system. The prescription is immediately shared with the pharmacy, so that once the prescription is issued, a patient can simply walk down the hall to the pharmacy and pick up the medication. This would not be possible without the integrative services provided by a health information technician.

A health information technician can also make sure that a patient has received and signed all consents and HIPAA privacy disclosure forms. HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, has a number of requirements concerning patient health care records. Any doctor, clinic, hospital, or other health care provider must ensure that all required physical, network, and process security HIPAA measures are in place and are followed.

HIPAA has a number of requirements regarding how patient data is stored, with whom it is shared and the like. HIPAA also has strict requirement regarding use and access to patient records, including the transfer, disposal and use of electronically protected health information.

Related: How to Become a Medical Records Technician

A health information technician ensures that each patient has received and signed the HIPAA acknowledgement forms indicating that they have received the required HIPAA compliance forms, by noting that in the patient records and alerting the physician if the patient has not received or signed the required forms.  In some work settings a health information technician may ensure that all systems meet HIPAA requirements as outlined by the technician’s superiors. A health information technician would not develop protocols for compliance, but would work from an existing protocol, checking the system and patient records for compliance against the existing protocols.

Likewise, one of a health information technician’s chief duties is to protect the confidentiality of a patient’s health care records. If the work setting keeps paper files, the technician ensures that all forms, test results, medical notes, records of prescriptions and the like are all properly filed and that the files are securely kept and locked.

If the records are kept electronically, a health information technician ensures that access to these patient records is kept appropriately secure and that the files are complete and coded appropriately. This may mean that the health information technician may consult with health care professional and physicians from time to time to gain clarification regarding a particular patient’s file.

A health information technician may also interface with insurance companies or Medicare to work with reimbursement for services provided. This may include some medical coding of patient files, but more likely, it would include transferring medical codes to insurance or Medicare forms for reimbursement.

Another area of work for a health information technician is that of Release of Information. This too is a sub-specialty involved in many larger health care networks. This would include handling all legal requests for patient records, whether through Release of Information forms or subpoenas, and abstracting and releasing medical records.

Where Does a Health Information Technician Work?

There are many health care environments in which a health information technician may find work. The most obvious and most low-tech environment may be a small medical practice with one or two doctors. In a small office, patient files, whether kept in paper or electronic form, will be fewer in number. In this environment, a health information technician may have a wider variety of duties, including ensuring that any electronic files are kept secure and updating all virus protection.

A health information technician may also work for a health provider network such as Kaiser Permanente. In this environment, where electronic files are the norm and patient data is shared between departments, the number of patient files is exponentially larger. As such, a health information technician may in fact work in a small sub-specialty of the process such as coding, or Medicare reimbursements. This would also include hospitals where patient information is shared via release of information between the patient’s doctor and the various hospital departments that might provide services to the patient.

A health information technician can also find work in smaller alternative health care practice environments such as chiropractic offices, acupuncture offices and the like, or in a mental health clinic or facility. All of these health care providers are also required to keep medical records which must be managed.

Health information technicians also work in research centers which also manage patient files, such as the Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland, California.  Another sub-type of this career works with cancer registrars which require expertise in distinguishing types of cancers, benign tumors and the like including managing data and tracking patient treatment and recovery rates over time through annual follow-ups.

What are the Requirements to Become a Health Information Technician?

Educational Requirements

Most health information technician jobs require at least a two-year associate degree with an appropriate emphasis in subject matter. Some certification programs require that the two-year community college program be accredited by CAHIIM before the candidate may sit for licensing exams. Holding the license allows a solid track for management positions, especially when combined with a bachelor’s degree. Entry level competence follows a curriculum based on outlines and guidance from the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA).

Classes may include medical terminology, fundamentals of ICD coding, principals of CPT/HCPCS coding, health information technology, clinical documentation, privacy and security training, anatomy and physiology, coding practicum, virtual lab practicum, legal aspects of healthcare, healthcare delivery systems, clinical quality assessment, and comparative records in alternative healthcare.

These classes take you from introducing elements of medical terminology including the names of common procedures and medications to both basic and advanced coding, health records, computerized coding methods and references; from understanding patients’ rights to civil liability and judicial processes as those pertain to health information technology. Many of these programs also include classes to help a graduate of their program with the certification and licensing exams.

Classes are meant to both impart critical information and to provide students ample opportunity to understand critical issues of patient rights of privacy balanced against the need to provide excellent healthcare, all against an educational environment rich in gaining practical experience. When selecting a program of study, students may want to look for a program which includes general classes, core courses, and clinical on-site practicum opportunities.

Program length and credit hour requirements vary quite a bit from approximately 60 credit hours for a two-year program to 120 credit hours for a four year program.

Licensing and Certification Requirements

Some states require that health information technicians obtain certification.  In order to do so, a candidate must have completed an associate’s level CAHIIM accredited program and to have passed the Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT) licensing exam.

In order to take the exam, you must send transcripts from the school attended, along with an application and exam fees. Currently, AHIMA also allows students in CAHIIM accredited programs who are enrolled in their final term of study to apply for and take their certification exam early. Currently, you must pass the exam with a score of 300 out of 400 correct answers.

What is an Online Health Information Technician Degree?

An online health information technician degree is a viable educational option for many. Many online programs are CAHIIM accredited, and online classes allow both affordability and flexibility for many students.

When looking at online programs, a prospective candidate should look at accreditation, costs per credit hour, academic reputation of the program, flexibility in terms of accelerated classes and/or the opportunity to take classes in sub-specialties of the field. Because of logistics, a candidate should also look to see if the program offers practicum opportunities and if so, how those opportunities are handled.

What Does it Take to Become a Health Information Technician?

Attention to Detail

The ability to track and correct small pieces of information is a critical part of this job. At the same time, the position requires the technician to keep an eye on larger issues such as the completeness of a patient file. Patient records need to be accurately kept. And billing must be accurate. Even small discrepancies in billing can prevent or delay payment.

Willingness to Take Initiative and Lead

The job requires a willingness to take on new responsibilities and challenges, as well as the willingness to take charge of a task or set of tasks, and to offer opinion, directions, and insight. This includes the ability to communicate clearly and effectively.

Cooperative

A health information technician must work cooperatively with a number of people including physicians, other administrative staff, insurance companies and with Medicare.

Flexibility

A health information technician’s environment is constantly shifting. It is essential that one is able to shift and adapt to job needs as they arise.

Dependable

This is a position that requires a high level of dependability. The issue of patient privacy and accurate health care delivery systems is an increasingly complex one. It is also an increasingly important one.

Problem Solver

Finally, a health information technician must be an excellent problem solver. This allows the technician to determine how to code medical billing and medical procedures. This is an extremely complex part of the job.

What are the Pros and Cons of Being a Health Information Technician?

Does Not Require an Advanced Degree

This is a field with relatively low barriers to entry. A two-year college program and certification if required or desirable, is all that is needed. Most medical fields require advanced degrees and significant costs. Costs may be contained especially if a candidate attends a community college program.

Long Hours In Front of a Computer

This can be difficult for many people. By its nature, the job requires heavy computer skills and use. This can lead to boredom and isolation. It can also lead to carpal tunnel in hands, wrists and arms as well as other physical ailments.

Work Can Be Done In Varying Locations

If the work environment is electronic, the technician may work offsite. This allows the technician to work from home or with a flexible schedule.

Salary

Although this is a growing field, the median salary is not high. At about $38,000 in many areas, this salary is not particularly high. However, this position may provide a strong gateway to management positions, with a higher median salary.

How Much Does a Health Information Technician Make?

In 2016, the median salary for a health information technician according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics was $38,040 annually or $18.29 per hour. This median amount may vary quite a bit by state and the type of work environment. Smaller clinics tend to pay by the hour allowing a worker more flexibility, while larger environments make the position a salaried one.

On the upper end of salary spectrum, those with more specialized skills currently earn a mean salary of $41, 460 or $19.93 per hour.  This includes those workers with specialized coding skills. This too varies by state and employment organization with small doctors’ offices clinics paying less on average ($35,000-38,000), and insurance carriers and pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing companies paying more on average ($54,000-$56,000).

What is the Job Outlook for Health Information Technicians?

Health information technology is a growing field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as a field, it is projected to grow at 13% between 2016 and 2026. This is faster than many fields. The movement toward digitizing medical records has created a booming field, especially for those technicians with certifications.

An aging population in the United States will continue to require more medical services and more health information technicians will be required to manage that information.

What Careers are Similar to Health Information Technician?

Health Care Administration: A Healthcare Administrator supplies administrative support for a medical environment. This could include setting appointments, answering phones, some patient care or assistance, typing and file maintenance. This also includes medical secretary positions.

Certified Coding Associate: Also a certified position, a certified coder is a specialized niche within the health information technician field. Certified coders are much in demand, and the position requires specialized skills in a number of differing coding systems.

Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA): Also a certified position, you must hold a bachelor’s degree and pass an examination in order to work as a registered health information administrator. This is a skilled position, requiring expertise in collection, interpretation and analysis of patient records. This is also a position that can lead directly to management level positions.

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