Interview with an AHIMA Expert: How Health Data Professions Have Evolved into STEM Fields

Health information professionals already work in informatics, data analytics, and data; they’re employed in many areas that are common to both health information and STEM. It’s a natural fit for Medical and Health Services Managers (RHIAs) to be designated as a STEM occupation.
John Richey, MBA, AHIMA Academic Affairs Subject Matter Expert

Health data is nothing new, but the way it’s recorded and transferred has evolved significantly. Paper records and fax machines have been replaced with Electronic Health Records (EHRs) and the Internet of Things (IoT). The speed, accuracy, and volume of health data today is light years ahead of where it once was.

“In the last couple of decades, health data has exploded in quantity, complexity, and use,” says John Richey, a subject matter expert at the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA).

The more one knows, the better one is able to act, and the revolution in health data is powering major advancements in healthcare delivery. Medical experts are using health data to prevent deadly infections, coordinate personalized treatment, boost prescription adherence, and monitor instances of fraud and waste. The applications are practically endless. Good health outcomes are now the result of good health data, and not vice versa.

But health data does not manage itself. Disaggregated data needs to be formatted and classified coherently, then turned into actionable insights. Patient outcomes need to be tracked for quality assessment. Privacy and security remain top concerns. What once was a laborious and time-consuming paper-based process is now a highly technical one. And, as health data has evolved, so have the skills, responsibilities, and titles of those who manage it.

Meet the Expert: John Richey, MBA, RHIA, FAHIMA

John Richey is an AHIMA Academic Affairs Subject Matter Expert with a wealth of experience in health information professional practice, academic program development, teaching, and membership association leadership. His 36-year career features leadership and management roles in health information management, coding, revenue cycle and chargemaster, and occupational health services.

Mr. Richey founded two academic programs: an associate degree program in health information technology, leading the program to CAHIIM accreditation, and a master of science in health informatics program.

Mr. Richey serves as the Staff Liaison for the AHIMA Professional Certificate Approval Program (PCAP) and the Council for Excellence in Education’s (CEE) Graduate Resource Alliance. He is a past president and distinguished member of OHIMA (Ohio). He is also a doctoral candidate in the biomedical informatics program at Rutgers University.

The Evolution of Patient Health Information

“Health information professionals are vital members of the healthcare team,” Richey says. “They are health data specialists, leading the development and implementation of infrastructures, policies, procedures, and guidelines to ensure that health data for the right person is available to the right clinician, at the right time, at the right point of care, and in the right manner.”

It’s because of that enormous responsibility that health information professionals undergo rigorous education in accredited academic programs, and sit for national certification exams following completion of their studies.

In addition to coding and specialty certification options, AHIMA offers two health information credential options. Health information professionals holding the Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT) credential ensure the quality of medical records by verifying their completeness, accuracy, and proper entry into computer systems. They may also use computer applications to analyze patient data to improve patient care or control costs.

Advanced health information professionals in administrative roles can also pursue AHIMA’s Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA) credential. These credentials certify that a health information professional is competent at providing leadership, expertise, advice, and counsel to healthcare stakeholders at every level: clinicians, executives, administrators, staff, patients, families, volunteers, employers, government and public officials, law enforcement, and others.

“Health information professionals practice in an ever-changing environment, so it is critical they maintain their skill set,” Richey says. “They are required to earn a minimum of 20 continuing education units (CEUs) every two years, and oftentimes more depending on the credential(s).”

The New STEM Designation: How the BLS Classifies Health Information Professions

The size, rigor, and complexity of the role of health information professionals have necessitated changes to the ways in which it’s classified. This year, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) finalized their Standard Occupational Codes (SOC), the list included a new code for Health Information Technologists and Medical Registrars (RHITs), differentiating the job classification from Medical Specialists (Coder).

“The new classification better recognizes midlevel health information professionals who are vital to the health systems they serve,” Richey says. “This classification is a win for the profession; AHIMA has advocated for the classification upgrade since 2014. But the work is not over.”

According to Richey, it’s now important for human resources managers and health information managers to ensure that health information professionals are properly classified across their organization. Proper classification can and should favorably impact job grades and descriptions, as well as pay scales and ranges.

The BLS made another welcome move in its occupational codes by including a recommendation to its Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to recognize Medical and Health Services Managers (RHIA) as belonging to a STEM occupation. This classification now includes examples that are reflective of health information professional roles: chief medical information officer, health information services manager, and medical records administrator.

The STEM designation is a major win for health information careers. It brings greater recognition to the profession, opens the doors to federal grants and funding, and affirms what those working in this field have known for some time.

“Health information professionals already work in informatics, data analytics, and data; they’re employed in many areas that are common to both health information and STEM,” Richey says. “It’s a natural fit for Medical and Health Services Managers (RHIAs) to be designated as a STEM occupation.”

The other positive change is baked into another form of data: the BLS projects that between 2018 and 2028, the need for medical and health services managers (RHIAs) will grow 18 percent, and the need for Health Information Technologists and Medical Registrars (RHITs) will grow 11 percent nationally. Both rates of growth are well above the national average for all occupations (5 percent), and as the Baby Boomer population ages and people remain active later in life, demand for healthcare services should increase even further.

“I believe the future of health information and the role that RHITs/RHIAs serve within it are best-captured by AHIMA’s Mission—Empowering people to impact health—and AHIMA’s Vision—A world where trusted information transforms health and healthcare by connecting people, systems, and ideas,” Richey says. “The future of health information is bright.”

Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.