How to Become a Registered Health Information Technician
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In a healthcare setting, who really controls the flow of information? Doctors may believe they’re the top dogs; after at least a decade studying the science of healing, their names adorn doors and parking places, and they’re the ones with whom patients make appointments. Nurses may say that they’re actually the ones who get the job done, putting in more time with patients than physicians and recording medical information. In today’s digital environment, however, registered health information technicians (RHITs) actually manage the information behind all medical decisions, insurance disbursements, and service referrals, ensuring the continuity of care. RHITs are key in making sure all patient data remains in the right place where the right people can access it electronically when they need it—and the wrong people can’t.
Much more than filing clerks, RHITs have been called "the brains" of modern medicine because they’re the ones charged with gathering and storing all the moving parts—from insurance codes to billing information to medical terminology—and also filtering out unneeded info. And particularly for introverts and others who aren’t interested in patient-facing roles in healthcare, this administrative position is invaluable to the team while requiring minimal interactions with clientele.
Successful RHITs must have a firm knowledge of medical procedures along with proficiency in data systems. They need to communicate clearly to coordinate the actions of medical teams and insurance providers, but they also may work solo in healthcare environments.
It’s a behind-the-scenes position that’s expected to grow significantly in the next decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS Dec. 2015). In fact, the BLS reported that there were 188,600 medical records and health information technicians around the country; between 2014 and 2024, however, there was expected to be a 15 percent explosion of openings in this field, adding 29,000 fresh opportunities. Notably, this is more than double the average growth anticipated across all occupations during that same decade (6.5 percent).
Of course, not everyone who moves patient files around digitally is a RHIT; it’s an official title that must be earned by completing an approved academic program and passing an exam from the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), the predominant national certification organization in this line of work.
Read on to discover how to become an RHIT, including details about accredited programs and information on how to earn all necessary credentialing.
Skills & Traits of RHITs
Generally, a successful registered health information technician needs to focus on the big picture along with the fine details. They must have the ability to analyze electronic data, creating a detailed picture of a patient’s medical history and health information. These datasets contain sensitive information such as patient symptoms, diagnostic tests ordered, treatments prescribed, and other services. This information must be recorded accurately not only to keep insurance companies happy, but also to ensure that patients are given appropriate treatments and referrals.
RHITs need to be familiar with their particular employer or institution’s record-keeping system, including any unique coding information or medical software. Since there may be variations in scale and patient make-up—whether a person works for a medical center, a group of doctors, a mental health facility, or even in a bureaucratic capacity—an ability to be able to adapt to different circumstances and conditions is also crucial.
These professionals must also be adept at keeping up with the fast-changing healthcare industry, especially in regards to legislation such as HIPPA, which mandates that patient records need to be kept confidential. The specifics and best practices are continually evolving.
Not surprisingly, clear written and verbal communication skills are also strong assets, along with accuracy and attention to detail. In an industry that has countless procedure codes and abbreviations, getting a number wrong or leaving a detail incomplete could have negative consequences, minor or major.
RHIT Role Requirements
As mentioned in the introduction, RHITs must have completed a qualifying academic program in order to seek professional credentialing. There are both two-year associate and four-year bachelor’s degrees in the discipline; to qualify for credentialing through AHIMA, however, an aspiring RHIT must have graduated from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM), or a foreign association with a reciprocity agreement. These programs generally provide preparation for the comprehensive RHIT exam. Bachelor’s degrees, by contrast, may offer more of a management focus beyond the basic training requirements, setting a student up for opportunities in leadership, higher salary prospects, or the skills to qualify for AHIMA’s registered health information administrator (RHIA) exam.
Additionally, the Cleveland Clinic stated that some of the most commonly requested skills for RHITs include competency in ICD-09 and ICD-10 coding, CPT coding, and inpatient and outpatient coding. The BLS adds that RHITs can specialize their skills, joining one of two subfields of the discipline:
- Cancer registrars review pathology reports for accuracy; assign classification codes for treatment and diagnosis; plan annual follow-ups; gather data for research; and maintain appropriate databases of cancer patients.
- Medical coders look at patient information for pre-existing conditions; assign proper codes for care, population, and billing; and liaise with clinicians and billing teams.
Steps to Becoming an RHIT
While the pathway to becoming an RHIT varies by region and experience, here is one possible way to join this growing profession:
Step 1: Graduate from high school or earn a GED. Aspiring RHITs are strongly encouraged to excel in science and English courses, which will be the most relevant to their occupation. It may also be advisable to volunteer at a hospital or another healthcare facility to get a feel for the future work environment.
Step 2: Earn a CAHIIM-accredited associate degree or bachelor’s degree in health information management or a related discipline (2-4 years). As stated above, to qualify for professional credentialing, all aspiring RHITs must graduate from a recognized two- to four-year program in health information management or a related discipline. Typical admissions requirements include:
- Completed application and fee
- Official transcripts from one’s high school or proof of a GED
- Personal statement or essay
- TOEFL scores (for ESL applicants only)
These programs generally include coursework in:
- Basic medical terminology
- Pharmacology for allied health
- ICD-10 diagnostic coding
- Health information management (HIM)
- HIM statistics
- HIM computer applications
- Medical insurance and reimbursement
- Disease and diagnosis coding
- Anatomy and physiology
- Legal aspects of healthcare
- CPT coding
- RHIT exam preparation
To learn more about what to expect from a health information technology program, please check out the three examples below or the Guide to Accredited HIT Programs.
Step 3: Get certified through AHIMA’s Commission on Certification for Health Informatics and Information Management (less than one year). In general, candidates for CCHIIM’s RHIT examination are asked to display accuracy in entering patient info; to analyze patient data to improve care or costs; and to demonstrate a familiarity with common coding systems and procedures.
To qualify for the exam, candidates need to have completed at least an associate’s degree from a CAHIIM-accredited program, or a foreign program recognized by AHIMA. As of 2017, applying for the exam was $217.55 for AHIMA premier members; $229 for members; and $299 for non-members. It’s important to note that candidates have a four-month window after registration to take the exam, which is available online or at a designated testing center. Also, students currently in a recognized academic program can enroll to take the exam early if they’re in their final term. The exam takes three-and-a-half hours and includes 150 multiple-choice questions across five domains:
- Data analysis and management (18-22 percent of questions)
- Coding (16-20 percent)
- Compliance (14-18 percent)
- Information technology (10-14 percent)
- Quality (10-14 percent)
For more information on the exam, check out the AHIMA Candidate Handbook.
Step 4: Maintain RHIT credential (every two years). Finally, all certified RHITs must maintain their AHIMA credential by completing 20 qualifying continuing education units (CEUs) every two years, including five hours of coding self-reviews. Recertification of the RHIT and other credentials is required to keep up with changes in the industry.
RHIT Training Schools
University of Cincinnati Online
Rasmussen College - Online
Southern New Hampshire University
Penn Foster Career School
Lastly, there is a variety of CAHIIM-accredited schools around the country to prepare aspiring RHITs for the credentialing, including online and on-campus training programs. Here are three standout schools:
- Cleveland Clinic: This non-profit academic medical center offers training in various medical fields, including health information technology. Candidates work with patient health information and organize data in a distance-based or on-campus format. Following this two-year program, students will be qualified to take the RHIT exam; for those seeking greater challenges and responsibilities, however, the school’s four-year program offers more advanced coursework with a management focus, preparing graduates to take the RHIA certification exam.
- Valencia College: This two-year, online associate of science (A.S.) program in health information technology prepares students to enter the workforce with training in coding and reimbursement, including how to keep patient data private and secure. Over a period of five semesters, students learn to collect, report on, and analyze data. They also are instructed in health management, the principles of disease, delivery systems, and statistical research. Additionally, students can continue in Valencia’s program to earn an advanced technical certificate in leadership in healthcare. Florida residents pay $103.06 per credit for the associate program, and out-of-state residents pay $390.06 per credit.
- Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College: This health information technology program is fully online and takes two years to complete. It prepares students to compile and process healthcare info through coursework in ethics, coding, and current regulatory health requirements, among other subjects. In addition, the 61-credit program covers basic medical information such as disease and treatment options, as well as organizational techniques and computer systems. The program can be completed on a full-time or part-time basis, and students must perform clinical rotations in their third or fourth semester. Wisconsin and Minnesota residents pay $146 per credit; Michigan residents pay $151 per credit; and residents from other states pay $212 per credit.
Overall, health information technology is expected to be an in-demand field into the future, especially as more medical providers seek digital options for data storage and access.