Sunday, December 5, 2010

There's No Future in Coding... or is There?

When I graduated from college 15 years ago, there was a big local trend in my area to train RHITs to become utilization review (UR) case managers. In case you haven't heard of UR, they are typically nurses who review medical record documentation against criteria from insurance companies to help the doctors know when it would be best to discharge patients and they help arrange post-hospitalization care if needed. There was a local company created by an RHIT who received her first post-grad job from none other than my mom (also an RHIT) and she promised me an interview when I graduated. See? Networking is important!

Once I graduated, I called in the favor and met with her HR recruiter. The only problem was, I had just finished doing a lot of coding at an internship and I had fallen in love with it. Believe it or not, at that time there were no open coding positions. I used to joke that the only way I would get hired as a coder is if someone moved out of state or retired! So I took the interview at the UR company and it sounded okay. It sounded like something I could do and they were willing to train. They were even willing to give me raise once I passed my RHIT exam.

And then I got the call from my internship supervisor. She was excited to tell me that they had just run the numbers and decided they needed another outpatient coder. She really wanted to hire me as an inpatient coder, but this is what she could offer me to get my foot in the door. It was more money than the starting position at the UR company, but less than I would make at the UR company once I passed my RHIT. But I didn't care about the money, I wanted to code. So I took the coding job and graciously declined the UR position. And I was told by the HR recruiter at the UR company that there was no future in coding - the future was UR.

I'm sure there are still some RHITs out there doing UR, but within a few years of beginning my coding career, the coding industry exploded. We had OIG investigations and new code-based payment systems and a seemingly endless list of things to keep the job new and fresh. Now I look back on that time 15 years ago when I wondered if I was making a mistake because I followed my gut rather than looking at trends. And then I look forward at the challenges we're facing in the future of coding and can say with a resounding "hooray!" - I think I made the right decision!

Is the Future EHRs?
These days I'm starting to hear it again - "Go into electronic health records (EHRs), there's no future in coding." What?! That's absurd! I'm not here to tell you there is no future in EHRs, but don't let anyone tell you there's no future in coding either. The health information management (HIM) field has historically been divided into operations, i.e., managing patient health information, and coding.

These days the most innovative thing to hit operations is the EHR. More hospitals are moving toward EHRs that will allow for better accessibility to patient health information for continuity of care. There are programs popping up everywhere to close the education gap between HIM and information systems and the term "health informatics" is the new buzz term for the early part of the 21st century.

I have a lot of colleagues who are are firmly embedded in EHR implementations. As a matter of fact, my company is an EHR implementation company. But most of us currently working in the field know that while there is an absolute future in EHRs for any HIM professional, coding is not and never will be a dead-end career. And if you can understand how coding relates to EHRs and vice versa, you can be very marketable.

When I received my RHIT, I assumed I would go into management like my mom. She was an RHIT who had been everything from a coder in her early career to director of HIM and quality for a small psych hospital. RHITs are not typically managers, though, they are usually more ingrained in technical work. The associates program for HIM that precedes the RHIT certification exam is loaded with classes on the technical aspects of managing patient information - including coding - with a few management classes thrown in. The bachelors program that prepares one to sit for the RHIA exam is less technical and more management.

What we tell folks is, if they want to manage an HIM program, become an RHIA. If you want to be a technical worker, like a coder or cancer registrar, become an RHIT. But this isn't a hard and fast rule. I recently talked to an RHIA student who really thinks she wants to be a coder, but her fellow students are telling her there is no future in coding, the future is in managing EHR implementations. She really wants to pursue coding, though.

Follow Your Bliss
I'm not really one for corny sayings like "follow your bliss" but this is your career we're talking about. No matter what your educational background - RHIT or RHIA - if you're trying to decide between coding and EHRs, don't let anyone else influence your decision. Even if you're an RHIA who wants to be a coder or an RHIT who aspires to manage some day (it can and has been done!), go after what you want.

And don't let anyone tell you there is no future in coding or EHRs. All I see for the future of HIM is opportunity in every direction I look.