Beyond GPA: What Are HIM Students Really Thinking About?

It's a terrific time to be an HIM student. Whether students are making a switch from another industry or upgrading their skills in order to move ahead, the HIM field offers a growing number of diverse, well-compensated career paths that are challenging and rewarding. Plus, not every employment field can boast meaningful work that has an impact on the population's health and the way entire organizations are run.

While the future is rosy, today HIM students face certain challenges beyond studying for exams and achieving high grade point averages. Here are some insights gleaned from interviews with promising AHIMA student members and members in the field, as well as two recent studies. If you're a student, see how your experiences match up. If you're a practicing HIM professional, find out how you can help students get a leg up on finding a job.

Need #1: Flexibility, Please!

Many students are seeking ways to balance their schoolwork, family life, and employment. While HIM programs and educational opportunities are increasing to meet demand across the country, some regions lack four-year degree programs. Some programs do not offer evening courses that accommodate working students.

Katherine McGee, 25, a HIT student at Phoenix College, quit her full-time job in order to attend the only accredited HIM program in her state.

"I really enjoy my program, but it's only for the associate's degree and it's not as flexible as I'd like it to be," she says. "If I had to work full time, it would be very hard to get the degree."

Many HIM students don't have the option to attend school full time. Many are parents and some are the sole breadwinners in their households. Distance learning or "e-learning" has become an important alternative for these students, as well as for those who lack educational opportunities in their area.

"School is a balancing act," says Carolyn Ann Elder, 47, one of a growing number of students who have opted to attend a distance-learning program. While earning a bachelor's degree in HIM at SUNY Institute of Technology at Utica/ Rome, Elder is balancing a household with three children and a part-time job working as a transcriptionist from home. As a result, she had to pace her coursework. It took her four years to complete the associate's degree and she estimates it will take her another three to complete her bachelor's degree.

For added flexibility, students can sometimes combine distance learning coursework with traditional classroom study. AHIMA offers a variety of distance learning courses, including Coding Basics, designed for students just entering the field.

Need #2: Breaking in

The HIM field presents more job opportunities than ever before. There's a coder shortage. New privacy legislation has spurred new job creation. And jobs need to be filled as technology pervades healthcare.

However, students desiring technical or coding spots are still sometimes confronted with the age-old problem of many first-job seekers: managers of time-strapped HIM departments often need people who can hit the ground running. As a result, recent grads without experience may get passed over.

And at the other extreme, some future grads are worrying about competition from less-qualified applicants who can often appear desirable simply because they are available today and can fill an empty seat.

"My fear is employers are hiring under-qualified people, so when I go out and look for a job, it won't be available," explains Brandy Burnell, 21, a bachelor's degree student in health services administration at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, KY.

Some recent graduates, such as Amanda E. Moran, 24, receive multiple job offers. When Moran graduated from East Central University in Ada, OK, with a bachelor's degree in HIM, three facilities offered her positions as a coder, assistant manager, and privacy officer. Moran accepted the privacy officer position at McCurtain Memorial Hospital in Idabel, OK, and hasn't looked back. "I love what I do," she says, "I love coming to work."

Need #3: Excellent Externships

Students are looking for meaningful professional practice experiences (PPE) while in school. For many it's their sole opportunity to get a taste of their future profession and a chance to add relevant experience to their resumes. PPE can be valuable for facilities as well.

"I think it's a win-win situation for both the student and the facility. They get to see what the real world is like, and we get to preview potential employees," says Ramona Fissinger, RHIT, director of medical record services at Community Hospital in Munster, IN.

According to a student exit survey conducted as part of AHIMA's Work Force Assessment Study, more than four out of five students surveyed agreed that their PPE met their needs and interests. They also said their PPE was helpful in deciding about future employment.

An important payback to facilities is a hands-on look at potential employees. The student exit survey showed that 43 percent of students surveyed were offered a job by the organization that administered their PPE. Of the students offered a job, 16 percent accepted the position.

"We have had students come through for a clinical and then have aggressively pursued them," says Fissinger, whose HIM department has hired three recent HIM graduates since January, two of whom had their PPE at her facility. "If you've got an HIM program [nearby], you can't not support that program and then say, 'Gee, we never get any good candidates.'"

Need #4: Guidance and Encouragement

According to a 2002 Web-based survey of students by AHIMA's Student Connection Expedition, 88 percent of respondents agreed that a professional mentor program would be helpful to their careers, yet only 58 percent reported having a mentor.

This year AHIMA is addressing this need with an online mentoring program. The AHIMA Mentor Program promotes ongoing dialogue between HIM students and experienced, enthusiastic, and committed HIM professionals. Students can find the mentoring program by joining the Student CoP in the Communities of Practice at

Mentors in the program represent different specialty areas and can offer diverse perspectives on the field. Students can post questions to the community discussion board for general advice or directly e-mail mentors who seem to match their specific needs.

"I wanted to find somebody who could help me figure out how to leverage my experience in this new environment," says career changer Steven Goldberg of Boca Raton, FL, who has been working in customer relationship management software development.

He approached Rita Scichilone, RHIA, CCS, CCS-P, CHC, director of coding products and services at AHIMA, who is a seasoned professional with more than 30 years of experience in various settings, including physician offices, hospitals, consulting firms, education, and content development. In e-mails and phone calls, Scichilone gave him an overview of trends in the field, certification requirements, and HIM education programs. This month, Goldberg begins HIM distance learning course work at Stephens College in Columbia, MO.

Mentors participate for many reasons. They want to contribute to the future excellence of the HIM profession. Some have had mentors in their lives and want to give back. Others, such as Elizabeth Tetreault, RHIT, director of HIM at Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford, CT, didn't have a mentor and would have liked one.

"When I was a student, I would have welcomed this program," says Tetreault, who is president-elect of the Connecticut HIMA. "At times I found it very difficult to remember the reason I was going to school. I was divorced, had two kids, worked full time, and went to school part time. From having been in that boat, I am gaining satisfaction from helping somebody else hang in there."

AHIMA's Contributions

Access to AHIMA resources is the number one reason why students join the Association, according to the 2002 AHIMA Web-based survey of students. The Journal of AHIMA, rich with practical articles and practice briefs, is a notable benefit. In addition, AHIMA's Web site,, features an online Job Bank where students can post their resumes and search a database of job openings across the country.

A vital resource is the Communities of Practice (CoP), which can be used for research and course projects. Students can network with other scholars and professionals across the country in dozens of interest areas. There is a special community designed just for students, the Student CoP, which contains tips on researching HIM topics, information about certification exams, job search strategies, and a discussion board for networking.

Another online member benefit, the FORE Library: HIM Body of Knowledge, contains invaluable resources for researching and writing papers, including practice briefs and articles from the Journal and other publications.

The AHIMA Student Connection Expedition, tasked with defining the student membership experience, has developed additional student member benefits for 2003. In addition to the AHIMA Mentor Program, the Student Expedition created an electronic newsletter, Student Connection e-news. The newsletter, written by and for students, serves as a primary connection between the Association and students as it discusses HIM trends and conveys important job search strategies. To see a sample of the newsletter, visit the Student CoP and look under community news. Also, tips are e-mailed to more than 6,500 students each month.

Students and the Association have an important symbiotic relationship. Students are the future of the profession and the association. In encouraging students to begin a lifelong connection with AHIMA, the Association can help students learn more efficiently, begin their careers, and gain confidence. And that is a group effort, says Tetreault. "I hope that we as a group of people stop and think how else we can help students to be sure that we empower them and support them."

Job Search Tips for Students

Seek experience while in school. Consider file clerking at the university hospital or volunteering at a local facility, advises Jill Sell-Kruse, RHIA, CCS, of Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs, CO. "Exhibit a good work ethic by setting a schedule, sticking to it, and never being idle."

Treat professional practice experience (PPE) as a job interview, says Ramona Fissinger, RHIT, of Community Hospital in Munster, IN. Dress professionally, demonstrate enthusiasm, willingness to learn, receptivity to constructive feedback, and excellent communication skills.

Be active in your CSA. Attend state meetings to learn about important healthcare trends in your region. Meet the movers and shakers in your area, as well as potential employers. National job seekers should consider attending the AHIMA national convention to meet employers and important suppliers to the industry.

Emphasize your strengths on your resume. If you lack work experience, highlight projects for courses and PPEs under a heading such as "externship projects," suggests Susan Parker, RHIA, of Seagate Consultants in Wrightsville Beach, NC, and a member of the AHIMA Board of Directors. If you have work experience, but it is in another field, list your education first and then your experience.

Customize applications. Research employers using annual reports, the library, the Internet, and networking. Reflect this insider knowledge in letters and resumes, says Parker. If applying for advertised positions, liberally use terms from ads. Keep formatting simple and proofread, proofread, proofread.

Source: AHIMA Advantage 7:4 (June 2003)