Online HIT Degree Programs

The demand for health information technicians and technologists (HITs) is rising sharply because medical personnel rely on modern technology for records keeping and other facets of their work. These skilled professionals embrace many responsibilities in healthcare settings, including maintaining accurate and accessible paper and electronic health records (EHRs); assigning codes to patients’ health information for insurance purposes and general records keeping; organizing registries and clinical databases; keeping up-to-date on the latest coding systems through continuing education; and even tracking outcomes of clients for quality assurance purposes. They also can specialize in specific aspects of health information technology, such as medical coding or maintaining cancer registries. And there’s evidence that this is a growing and relatively lucrative occupation.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Dec. 2015), job opportunities for medical records and health information technicians were expected to swell 15 percent between 2014 and 2024, adding 29,000 fresh openings in the field nationwide. This is more than double the growth expected across all US occupations during that time (6.5 percent). In addition to the high growth prospects, aspiring HITs should take note of the relatively generous wages in this profession, particularly in comparison to positions requiring similar education. In fact, the BLS (May 2016) reported that the 200,140 working medical records and HITs across the US commanded an average annual salary of $41,460.

Not surprisingly, employers prefer health information technicians with the appropriate postsecondary education and credentialing. The most common degree required is an associate degree, and while a significant number of these aspiring health information technicians choose to pursue a degree by attending an on-campus program, others are turning to online programs for the wide array of flexibility and benefits they offer.

Ultimately, an online program may be the perfect choice for aspiring HITs who are interested in working at their own pace; live in remote areas; or have time commitments which make attending an on-campus program difficult. This guide examines what to expect from an online HIT program, including a discussion of the typical coursework, sample programs, and credentialing in the field.

What to Know – Online Health Information Technology Schools

Before applying to a health information technology program, aspiring HITs should ask themselves whether they’re a good fit. What type of personality often succeeds in an online program? To begin, online HIT programs require students to be self-starting and independent, needing little direct supervision from professors or peers as they complete their studies. Also, many people who enroll in online programs have time-related or geographical limitations, which prevent them from effectively completing a traditional, brick-and-mortar program. For example, those who live an inconvenient distance from a college in a rural area may benefit from a distance-based HIT program. Also, those who want to maintain their jobs while pursuing a degree or have parenting responsibilities may enjoy the flexibility of completing an online program.

These are only a few of the important considerations when applying to online health information technology programs, and any additional questions about the coursework, pacing, or success of former students can be directed to program coordinators.

Admissions Requirements for Online HIT Programs

While admissions processes differ by institution, here are some common application materials required for entrance into an online HIT program:

  • Official transcripts from one’s high school or GED
  • Personal statement or essay
  • CV
  • TOEFL scores (for ESL applicants only)
  • Application fee

Some programs may require a candidate interview, letters of recommendation, proof of health insurance, or other test scores.

Finally, when applying to an online health information technology program, aspiring students should be sure to research whether or not they will be required to follow the same calendar schedule as everyone else. In some programs, students must start and stop at the same point throughout the year, and will need to take exams and submit coursework on a given schedule; in others, a rolling start date may exist, and students may have the overall ability to complete work entirely on their own schedule.

HIT Curriculum & Specializations

In general, students who enroll in online health information technology degree programs generally encounter a similar curriculum to their on-campus counterparts. For example, students in these programs will likely take classes on the following subjects, among others:

  • Basic medical terminology
  • Health information management (HIM)
  • Medical insurance & reimbursement
  • Disease & diagnosis coding
  • Health data systems
  • Anatomy & physiology
  • Pharmacology for allied health
  • Pathophysiology
  • Healthcare procedure coding systems
  • Legal aspects of healthcare
  • HIM statistics
  • HIM computer applications
  • CPT coding
  • ICD-10 diagnostic coding
  • Coding and/or RHIT exam preparation

In certain programs, students may have the option to specialize in a subfield of the discipline such as cancer registry management or a specific coding system.

Featured Online HIT Degree Programs

Fortunately for aspiring health information techs who are interested in pursuing a distance-based degree, many respected institutions are currently offering online programs.

Dakota State University (Madison, SD)

At Dakota State University, students have the opportunity to pursue an online associate of science (AS) degree in health information technology. This program includes a supervised professional practice, meaning that students obtain valuable hands-on experience in the healthcare industry performed at a determined facility, which also allows students the chance to network to help them secure employment upon finishing the degree program. This specific program has received accreditation through the Commission on Accreditation of Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM), and graduates of this program will be eligible to sit for the RHIT certification examination offered through the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA). During the course of their studies, students will take 34 credits of courses on anatomy and physiology, introduction to computers, basic medical terminology, oral communication and social science, healthcare procedure coding systems, and a number of others that relate to health information technology. Students interested in pursuing a degree at this institution must apply according to the same schedule as set forth by the institution; as such, there are two start dates throughout the year, and aspiring students must submit their applications beforehand. The school charges $335 per credit hour for online courses (2017-18).

DeVry University (various campus locations)

DeVry University offers students the option to pursue an associate of applied science (AAS) degree in health information technology entirely online. Graduates of the 67-credit online HIT degree program will be eligible to sit for the Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT) examination, and all of the credits successfully completed in this program can be applied to a bachelor’s degree in health information management (HIM) at this institution. Students in this program will take courses on basic medical terminology, health services and information systems, legal and regulatory issues in health information, health insurance and reimbursement, and a number of others. This program typically takes four full-time semesters to complete. DeVry University charges new students $609 per credit hour or $250 for active duty military members.

Rasmussen College (various campus locations)

At Rasmussen College, students can earn an associate degree in health information technology in as few as 18 months of full-time study. Students can take the entirety of their courses online; or, for those who would rather attend campus periodically, a blended option does exist as well, wherein students take a mixture of on-campus and online courses. The program is CAHIIM-accredited, and tuition paid to the institution secures the students membership with the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), as well. Throughout the course of their studies at Rasmussen College, students will take courses on medical terminology, coding foundations, health information law and ethics, revenue cycle and billing, ambulatory care coding, health information compliance, and career development, among others. Students will also be required to take a number of general education credits as well. Since costs vary by zip code of student, please use Rasmussen’s tuition calculator for an estimate.

McKinley College (Fort Collins, CO)

At McKinley College, students have the option to pursue an online degree in health information technology. Students participating in this program will take courses on medical terminology, computer applications, anatomy and physiology, pathology and disease processes, health statistics and data analysis, diagnostic coding, and health information legal issues. In addition, students are not required to take elective credits, and those students who already have specialized knowledge in a certain field can take a “challenge exam” to test out of that specific subject. In as few as 16 months, the program requires students to complete 63 credit hours, and the institution charges between $175 and $185 per hour, depending on the method of payment chosen by the individual student.

HIT Program Accreditation & State Authorization

Finally, those who are interested in pursuing an online degree in health information technology should consider whether or not their selected program has received accreditation through the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM). Graduating from such a program certainly isn’t a requirement to practice in this industry, but it does have its benefits. Most notably, anyone who is interested in becoming nationally certified as a Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT) through the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) must have graduated from an accredited program. Furthermore, accreditation shows that a program has demonstrated a commitment to high quality education offered to its students. There are varied organizations which accredit college programs across the country, but not all programmatic and institutional accrediting agencies are created equal. Here’s a list of unrecognized “accrediting” organizations.

Also, distance-based students should verify their school’s state authorization status prior to applying. Due to differing local legislation, online colleges based in one state may not be able to provide education to a student residing in another state. This information is typically available on program websites, or can be retrieved from program coordinators.

Ultimately, there exist a significant number of factors to weigh in the decision regarding whether or not to pursue a degree online. And this guide is meant to be used as a reference to help ensure aspiring health information technologists and technicians make the right choice for their future.

HIT Credentialing

In addition to having a degree in health information technology, aspiring HITs are encouraged to seek out credentialing as well. While not all positions require HITs to have these certifications, many employers prefer them. There are many credentials in the health information field, and here are three of the most common, according to Tom’s IT Pro (2017), who analyzed job post data across LinkedIn, Indeed, SimplyHired, and other sites:

Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT)

This was the most popular HIT credential according to the analysis of job postings. Offered through the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), the RHIT credential is the gold standard in this career. Open to those who have completed at least an CAHIIM-accredited associate degree program, this certification denotes that a technician is detail-oriented in ensuring the accuracy and completion of EHRs and knows how to use various coding systems and computer applications. Please note that accredited HIT programs generally include preparation for the RHIT exam as part of the curriculum.

Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA)

The RHIA credentialing exam, available from AHIMA, is open to those with at least a bachelor’s degree from a CAHIIM-accredited program. This credential is more advanced than the RHIT and was the second most popular according to Tom’s IT Pro analysis.

Certified Associate (CAHIMS) and Certified Professional (CPHIMS)

These were the third most in-demand HIT credentials according to the aforementioned analysis. Offered through the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), a nonprofit organization, these credentials The CAHIMS is open to those with at least a high school diploma, and the CPHIMS is open to those with a bachelor’s degree and five years of relevant experience (including three years in healthcare), or a master’s degree.

For those interested in a more specialized credential, there is also:

Certified Tumor Registrar (CTR)

For those interested specifically in helping cancer patients, the National Cancer Registrars Association (NCRA) offers the CTR credential. Aspiring CTRs can become eligible through a combination of experience and education (i.e., completion of a NCRA-accredited associate degree or certificate program).

These are only four of the in-demand certifications available to those with a background in health information technology. For an overview of the credentialing in a related (and slightly more advanced field), be sure to check out the health information management (HIM) certifications.