Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New Year, New Attitude

I know many of you out there are looking for jobs. And I know that many of you are also suffering from a lot of rejection. And although I'm not much for New Year's resolutions - because let's face it, they don't usually last more than 30 days - I am a fan of new beginnings and the new year is a great time for new beginnings. Spoiler alert: I'm about to get out the pom-pons and get really Pollyanna!

First a little diversion - I love Christmas and everything about it. My house is decked out in full Christmas regalia while I'm still digesting Thanksgiving dinner and no room in my house is safe from a little holiday glitz. That said, after the new year, I love packing it all away and getting everything clean and organized and new. Of course, I am a coder, so organizing things is right on the top of my list of favorite things to do. And I encourage you to do the same - except organize your job search efforts instead.

It's time for a new perspective. The definition of insanity, according to our favorite physicist, Albert Einstein, is to try the same thing over and over and expect different results. What have you been doing that just isn't working? And how can you change your approach? If you didn't attend any networking events in 2010, start looking at calendars and planning for 2011. I know this may cost some money to attend events, but it's an investment in your future employment. I can't tell you how many people are offered jobs simply through networking. What job sites are you using to look for positions? Are you reading the trade magazines? Should you expand your search to other geographic locations? Take a look at your resume too - what can you do make your resume pop more?

Finally, check your attitude. I know this is probably the hardest thing of all because we are who we are and changing your attitude about the job hunting process is hard. But if you've been burned in 2010, now is the time to leave that negativity behind and focus on a positive new year. Put it out in the universe that this is the year you will land your anchor job, that is the job that will anchor you in the profession and lead to your dream job. Put post-its on your bathroom mirror or whatever else you need to do to keep yourself motivated and feeling positive. Spend time with positive people in the profession. And always remember that a job rejection is not a reflection on you or your skills - it's a tough competitive job market. So pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again!

It's a new year, a new you, and before you know it, a new career!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Recovering Encoderaholic

Most coding students spend semesters learning to navigate ICD-9-CM and CPT code books and maybe a little class time plus internship experience learning how to code using an encoder. And then they graduate and, if they move on to a position at a hospital, they start using an encoder almost exclusively. In fact, many hospitals don't purchase code books for their coders because they pump so much money into encoders. The result can be coders who forget how to use their code books all together.

In case you aren't familiar, encoders are software programs that automate the code book. This makes coding faster for the coder and also allows for inclusion of coding and billing edits and coding guidelines and advice. Not to mention, it helps us remember to put fifth digits on all those diagnosis codes! There are two types of encoders: logic-based and book-based. Logic-based encoders are probably the most popular. They ask the coder a series of questions that ultimately lead to code assignment. Book-based encoders are computerized code books in which the coder looks up codes just like in a hard copy book with a few enhancements. Both types tend to include crosswalks from ICD-9-CM to CPT and vice versa.

Sounds great, right? What could possible go wrong?

Well, a lot, actually. And I speak from experience as a recovering encoderaholic.

Don't get me wrong, I like encoders - love them, actually - and can't do my job efficiently or completely without them. But even when I have my encoder up and running, my code books are at my finger tips. And when I teach, I prefer to teach from the book. This was a hard won lesson for me. I remember a coding auditor coming to audit my coworkers and me and, in her exit interview, she made an example of me. She asked me how I came up with a CPT code and my response was "the encoder took me there" and she asked me where my CPT book was and I pointed to the enclosed bin over my desk. And she read me the riot act for not having my CPT book on my desk - and I was coding day surgeries. She then told me what I tell the coders I audit now - "the encoder took me there" is not a valid excuse.

If you're wondering why you have to spend so much time becoming familiar with using the code book, it's because it's the fundamental of coding. If your elementary learning experience was like mine, you had to learn how to do long division before using a calculator and you had to learn to tell time on a clock face before you got a digital watch. Learning to use the code book is important because you need to know the logic behind the encoding programs in order to "check your work" - to steal a phrase from math class! How will you know the encoder led you wrong if you don't know the logic?

If that's not a good enough reason for you, then chew on this. Many people are not passing coding certification exams these days and it's not because they don't know how to code. Many of them have been coding for years - with encoders. And since they have to use books on the test and they aren't efficient in looking up codes in the book, they are unable to finish the test.
You may be asking if encoders will replace the need for coders and many industry experts agree that while there is some limited application to computer-assisted coding (e.g., radiology), the skill of reading a medical record and translating it into code is a subjective skill that requires a human. So don't worry about there being no future in coding due to computerization; just worry about how you will use coding software to enhance, not replace, your coding knowledge.

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.