Maintaining accurate health information is crucial to a patient’s plan of care.
For 30 years, Tyler Junior College has offered an associate degree in health information technology (HIT), ensuring that the region’s healthcare institutions are equipped with carefully trained staff.
“It’s a very responsible, detail-oriented position,” said Charlotte Creason, the founding professor of the TJC program that began in 1992. Creason retired in 2011 to re-enter the profession.
“I always told students that if they wanted a career in healthcare, but maybe direct patient contact wasn’t for them, this was a great opportunity,” she said.
Health information technology professionals ensure the accuracy, accessibility, quality and security of patient health records, and they are vital to the daily operations management of health information and electronic medical records.
Creason said the health information industry has evolved a lot in three decades, and the TJC program has kept up with current trends to make sure students are prepared.
“We’ve literally gone from index cards with patient information to everything being online,” she said. “We still have to make sure physicians sign their information, but now they dictate it since it’s done in an electronic format.”
TJC’s HIT associate degree combines elements of health science, information technology, management, healthcare reimbursement and law to prepare students for a rewarding STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) career.
Graduates work in a variety of medical-related settings, including hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities and government healthcare agencies as well as insurance companies and computer software vendors.
There are basically two sides to the HIT field, Creason explained.
“A lot of students go into coding in the beginning,” she said. “Coding is where you go through the patient’s chart, look at their diagnoses and procedures, and then change them into a code. Those codes go on the bill. Medicare started using those codes for billing purposes back in the 1980s, and now pretty much everyone uses them as well.”
Medical coding is well suited for people who have curious, problem-solving minds, she said.
“Coding is investigating,” she said. “You read through the medical record and investigate the diagnosis and the procedures and then figure out what the code is going to be. It’s always been my favorite thing because I love to read and love to work puzzles. I especially love coding complicated procedures because they are very difficult and detailed.”
The other side is health information management.
“Management is to be the caretaker of the medical record,” she said. “That can be in-patient or outpatient, and that includes things like making sure the documents are signed, kept where they need to be, whether it’s going to an insurance company for review or to a court situation or to the patient. They handle all the information that deals with the legalities of the record.”
An associate degree in HIT lays the foundation for students looking for career growth or a future in management — or they can further their education and pursue TJC’s Bachelor of Applied Technology (BAT) in healthcare administration or other bachelor’s degree programs and/or on to a master’s degree program.
Kimberly Collins, of Kilgore, graduated with her HIT degree in 2021 and is now pursuing her BAT degree while working remotely for HealthMark Group, a Dallas-based, software-driven provider of health information management solutions, where she performs quality control of attorney-requested medical records.
Collins said she chose TJC because it was close to home, offered of online classes and was a reasonable cost, plus, she said, “Classes were online yet close enough that I could drive in for one-on-one instruction from professors when needed.”
“I am really enjoying HealthMark,” she said. “I would like to climb the career ladder here and become a supervisor once I complete my degree and gain experience.
“I never thought that, at 45 years old, I would be in college; but due to a work injury, here I am. I have completed two associate degrees and will soon complete my bachelor’s. So, I guess my point is — you are never too old to learn something new.”
HIT program graduate Melissa Stini, of Nacogdoches, agrees.
“My TJC experience built the entire foundation of my knowledge in health information management,” she said. “I had never worked in healthcare before, so every single thing learned in my coursework was new information to me.”
Stini was looking for a career change when she discovered the TJC program, and she knew immediately that it was the right fit.
She credits HIT professors Caron Breckel, Maggie Kelley, Nancy Rendon and Nicole Wright for being instrumental to her success.
“I cannot thank them enough,” she said. “I also give credit to Dr. Gordon Betts’ Anatomy and Physiology courses. To this day, I remember the associations he used as examples in class when those A&P topics come up at work. Dr. Betts also provided his students with the best memory tip I have ever received: If you really want to remember something, go over it right before you go to sleep. It works!”
After graduating with her associate degree in 2019, Stini sat for the Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT) exam and passed it on the first try. Her skills have also gotten her noticed by her employers.
“Post-graduation, my supervisors were continuously surprised by the breadth and depth of my knowledge of healthcare, since I had never worked in this field before,” she said. “They would always ask how I knew all these things and my response was always the same: ‘I had to know this for my TJC HIT program.’”
Her first job was at a hospice as medical records coordinator.
“Hospices are often small organizations, so you get the chance to be involved on a multitude of levels with daily operations involving health information management,” she said. “I also worked as a medical scribe for a neurologist, which provided me with additional clinical and pharmacological knowledge.”
In 2020, Stini decided to attend Western Governors University and earned her Bachelor of Science in health information management this year.
“I sat for the RHIA (Registered Health Information Administrator) exam this summer and passed on the first try,” she said. “I still give the HIT program a lot of credit for that success because I never forgot those foundational concepts in health information management, thanks to my education at TJC.”
The application period for the next HIT program cohort opens in mid-January and runs through mid-April. For more information, go to TJC.edu/HIT.