Friday, January 14, 2011

I Have a Degree, Why do I Have to Volunteer?

I meet so many people who are out there looking for their initial break into the field of coding. And so many of them are discouraged when they are continuously told that they need experience in order to be eligible for hire. The first recommendation I make is always to volunteer and many times that advice is met with resentment - "I have a degree - why should I have to volunteer?"

Well this is where I usually try to put on my politically correct attitude and explain why but I think what I'm going to start saying is "I have a degree, certifications, and 15 years of experience and I volunteer." As a matter of fact, I can't name a single person in the coding field who's successful who doesn't continue to volunteer because so much of the coding profession is governed by volunteers. And if you're a member of AHIMA or the AAPC and you don't feel like you're getting enough out of your membership (or, like me, you're just really passionate about what you do), you have the ability to get involved and affect change.

So let's talk about what volunteering entails and the kinds of doors it can open.

Pink Ladies and Candy Stripers
If you've ever visited a hospital you've seen them. They sport little lab-type coats in pastel (usually pink) colors and work in the hospital gift shop. They're the volunteers that most of us think of when we think of volunteering in a hospital. Or maybe you were picturing the candy cane jumpers of the candy stripers. Well, there's more to volunteering in a hospital than being a pink lady or candy striper.

There is a department in each hospital responsible for selecting, training, and scheduling volunteers. And since most people who offer to volunteer in a hospital prefer to work directly with patients and the public, this leaves prime voluntary real estate in the HIM department. If you offer to volunteer at a hospital and specifically request to work in the HIM department, chances are pretty good the competition is low (unless you told your fellow classmates about this blog!).

Okay, so volunteering in an HIM department isn't going to be glamorous. You won't be coding charts your first day there. But if they use paper records, you might be hunting for records for the coders to code. You might be scanning in paper forms into the electronic medical record. The point is, once you're in the department, you can start to observe the inner workings of an HIM department. And if you pay attention and ask questions, your experience will come quicker than you ever imagined.

Professional Volunteering
I used to feel bad for not spending more time at the local animal shelter volunteering. I just felt like I needed to be doing something in my spare time rather than meeting my friends for dinner. But I soon realized that I had ramped up my professional volunteering so much, that it was probably okay I didn't have time to go pet 200 cats on a Saturday afternoon. My pets appreciate that I don't come home smelling like 200 cats anymore!

The best career advice I can give is to join one or both of the national coding associations: either the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) or the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA). If you want to get hired, you go where the employers are and they're members of AAPC and AHIMA. But becoming a member isn't enough. Now you need to network. And members of the AAPC and AHIMA network at events. So you need to go to the meetings and start talking!

This is usually where someone tells me how expensive those events are. And that cost is on top of the membership fees. If you don't have a job, you don't have the money to attend. Yes, it's a catch 22, but there's a loophole! The people who put those programs together are professional volunteers. And often, as a reward for their work, they get to attend for - wait for it - **free**. Or maybe a hefty discount. The point is, if you really want to attend, there are no excuses.

The professional organizations are made up of local organizations - state and/or regional - and they usually have boards. Boards are made up of elected individuals who are volunteering to run things on a local level. Whether it be a local AAPC chapter or your state AHIMA component state association, the boards get together for regular meetings to keep the organization afloat. They also discuss issues pertinent to the industry and how hospitals and physicians are reacting. Just attending these meetings can be an eye opener to the real challenges HIM and coding professionals face. There's also a lot of networking that happens at these meetings. I've both hired and been hired from networking at such events. And if you offer to chair or sit on a committee, it can be a great way to show off your skills and work ethic and make employers stand up and take notice.

I currently sit on a board that has a student liaison and at one of our meetings I had the opportunity to chat with her. She was so excited to be there and so excited about the chance to be a part of the board. I asked her how she heard about it and she said a mentor recommended becoming a member and from there she took the lead and asked the president about getting involved. We happened to have the student liaison position available.

But once you're in, I recommend keeping up the volunteering. I know a lot of colleagues who complain about how the organizations are run. These are usually people who don't vote in the organization elections or offer to help out either. So I look upon professional volunteering much as I do being an American citizen. I vote to earn the right to complain when things don't go how I'd like. And I volunteer in organizations so I can be a part of the change - even though things don't always go my way!

Put it on Your Resume
Volunteering isn't just a futile exercise to torture you and make you give up your precious time. It's a key component of your resume. Put everything you've done as a volunteer on your resume because it shows your commitment to the industry and it could mean the difference between equally qualified applicants.

When I first started running for board positions, I remember how inconsequential my volunteer experience looked compared to other candidates. But just build them one at a time - we all have to start somewhere. And over time, you'll see your list snowball. Here's an example of my volunteer history, as it appears on my resume:
  • 2010-2011 - First Year Director, Colorado Health Information Management Association (CHIMA)
  • 2011 - ICD-10 Task Force Chair, CHIMA
  • 2009-present - Coder Coach mentor
  • 2009 - Past President, Northern Colorado Health Information Management Association (NCHIMA)
  • 2008 - President, NCHIMA
  • 2007 - President-Elect, NCHIMA
  • 2005-2006 - Program Co-Chair, NCHIMA
  • 1999-2001 - Data Quality Committee Chair, CHIMA
  • 1998-1999 - Alternate Delegate, CHIMA
It's a Small, Small World
Here's an important thing to keep in mind when volunteering. Coding is a very small industry in the grand scheme of things, so be careful what you say about whom when you are working in a voluntary capacity. Or any capacity, really. Don't burn bridges because it's not a matter of if, but when will you come across this person again? And don't think moving out of state is going to help out much. There a lot of coding professionals, myself included, who cross state lines. And rumors spread like wildfire, which can be both good and bad for you. Make sure you're one of the people that when someone decides to gossip, they say, "Have you ever met _____? She did some work on a committee I was on and she has great potential for the future!"

So come on out and join my colleagues and me for some volunteering - it's not just for novices!