Data-keepers are the core of care
As COVID-19 leaps around the planet, the role of data-tracking the virus plays out in real time in a computer lab at Central Oregon Community College). Seventeen students of the Health Information Management program, seated at workstations on the Bend campus, are learning how agencies use health data to usher in management and containment plans.
"Our job is to help build the facts, to bring the facts to the community," Wendy Earthsong said to her class. "We're the conduit for information."
The assistant professor walks her students through a patient scenario. She explains how information flows from, say, a patient's records at St. Charles Health System to county health services and then on to the Oregon Health Authority before reaching the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and, ultimately, the World Health Organization. It all initiates with a health information professional at a keyboard.
Byte by byte, patient by patient, aggregate health information can have a huge impact when it comes to addressing a global health crisis. Of course, zoomed in, that data is most pertinent to the care and well-being of the individual patient it represents. Managing and processing this material — establishing the very core of a patient's care — are the trained info technicians who employ organization, detail and a sense of stewardship to carry out their work.
Like a Swiss Army knife, there are many foldout tools to a career in health information management, all joining to be part of the same whole. Some skills are focused on insurance or billing. Others center on coding — taking data through a system of parsing and categorizing. One-on-one patient interactions and working in teams, even guiding medical staff and administrators through things like HIPAA regulation updates, can be part of the job.
Wendi Worthington, COCC's health careers outreach and recruitment coordinator, works to connect career-seekers — such as high school seniors — with fields like health information management. "I can't tell you how many students have said, 'I want to go into health care, but I'm not sure I want to go into the blood and guts side of health care. Or, I want to go into business or accounting or management, but I want to do it where I feel I'm helping people,'" she said. "This can mesh those two worlds."
Michelle Aistear, COCC's health information management director, is herself a veteran of the banking industry. She found a more meaningful career thanks to an insightful COCC counselor — and never looked back. "It's been amazing," she said of the path.
The program starts a new cohort of up to 30 students each fall. These students have already put three prerequisite classes behind them and are ready for lessons in human anatomy, medical terminology, business communication and data collection, among other subjects. "They need to be on track, prerequisites in pocket, for a fall entry date," explained Aistear.
The program yields a series of certificates along the way, each a stepping stone that cumulatively builds into an associate degree. Punctuating both years is a hands-on, 40-hour directed practice experience — at places like doctors' offices and hospitals — that puts training into action during the weeklong summer internships.
Many will finish the degree in two years. Some, with work and family obligations, will split the second year into two segments — one of several customized approaches that makes the program feasible for busy lives — and, while taking an extra year, it creates the just-right recipe of flexibility and schoolwork.
COCC's training is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education, one of only two schools in the state to carry that distinction. It preps students for both the Registered Health Information Technician and Certified Coding Associate exams, the nationally recognized standards.
Graduates might work in a clinic, a dental practice or maybe an ambulatory surgery center, among other settings. The field plugs into more than 40 unique work environments and over 125 job titles. "This is a skill set that is more and more in demand," said Earthsong. "Health care is not hospital-based anymore."
In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a steady growth rate of 11 percent in the profession from 2018 to 2028, owing to the sheer volume of the country's aging population and a resulting bounce in the health care workforce.
With an average annual wage of $47,780, Central Oregon's health information sector ranked fourth in the country in 2018 for top-paying non-metropolitan areas, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Labor. Statewide, annual earnings pushed higher in 2018, averaging $48,390.
"I come from the mindset of helping people realize that there are college opportunities for everyone, whether it's right out of high school or a stay-at-home parent wanting to go back," said Worthington. "Health care careers are a phenomenal way to get your foot in the door into high-demand, high-paying careers."
For more details on the Health Information Management program at COCC, visit cocc.edu or contact the COCC Crook County Open Campus at 541-447-9233.
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