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How to Become a Medical Records and Health Information Technician

Medical Records and Health Information Technician updates a patients electronic records.

With the medical industry booming, the need for professionals to handle medical records and data will surge. America’s growing population increases the demand for medical records and health information technicians. These workers accurately code and organize medical billing data.

The abundance of open positions makes choosing the right path challenging for many students. Below we ponder a few questions you might have:

  • What’s the difference between a medical records tech and a health information tech?
  • Which should I choose?
  • How can I become a medical records tech or health information tech?

Today, let’s break down the answers to these questions and more. We’ll explore the differences between medical records techs and health informatics professionals. Then we’ll show you step-by-step how to become either or both over time.

What is a Medical Records Technician?

Medical records technicians operate under many different names. They may be called MRTs, medical coders, or medical billers. Regardless, their responsibilities are primarily the same. Medical records technicians perform the following:

  • Ensure the correctness of patients’ bills. Medical billers communicate regularly with their patients and health insurance companies. They have to know coding language and be excellent communicators.
  • Enter medical codes and work directly with insurance companies and patients. For the bulk of their days, medical coders record or code data. This task determines a patient’s charges for medical services. Almost every action in a medical office has a specific code. Accuracy is key.
  • Manage health records for lab procedures, x-rays, or surgeries. For example, a patient may require an x-ray before an upcoming medical procedure. The records technician makes sure to apply the correct codes to their bill and send it to the patient’s insurance company.

Medical record technicians primarily work in cubicles by themselves, no matter their specific responsibilities. They spent a lot of time navigating through complex software.

What is a Health Information Technician?

Health information technicians are similar to medical records technicians. However, they have more responsibilities and a different career path. Medical health information technicians, also referred to as RHITs or registered health information technicians, must pass a certification exam to be employed.

Health information technicians, also referred to as health informatics, perform the following duties:

  • Review patient data and medical records to make sure they are accurate
  • Organize and maintain patient data for registries or clinical databases
  • Track hospital patient outcomes, particularly for surveys or quality assessment
  • Use specific software to code or categorize medical records and other health information
  • Electronically record data for analysis, storage, collection, reporting, and more
  • Maintain the security, confidentiality, and accessibility of medical records

In addition, some medical informatics may perform the billing and coding tasks mentioned above. In this way, medical records technician roles offer the experience to advance to higher jobs like health informatics.

Additionally, health information technicians may manage other health information or records. For example, they may become registered health information administrators or RHIAs. These positions typically offer higher salaries and greater job responsibilities. Working professionals who want to make more money or wish for greater challenges in their day-to-day work tasks find this path ideal.

Medical Records Technician vs. Health Informatics

More simply, medical records technicians:

  • Deal directly with medical records and billing codes

Meanwhile, health informatics:

  • Deal with codes and records plus other elements of medical information. These can include patient confidentiality reports, data collection and organization, and more.

Health informatics techs usually have broader IT and medical technologies backgrounds. They have more significant potential for advancement in their careers and can branch into different jobs as their skillsets grow. For instance, health informatics professionals may become nurses, pharmacists, or even healthcare and hospital administrators later.

Do You Need to Become a Medical Records Technician Before You Become a Health Informatic?

No. Students may pursue a path to health informatics without becoming a medical records technician first. However, many students become medical records technicians of some type while in school.

That’s because you need a bachelor’s degree to become a health informatic. In contrast, you only need an associate’s degree and a certification program to become a medical records technician. Suppose you know that you want to enter a management position in the future. In that case, you may skip over medical billing or coding entirely.

Ideal Candidates for Medical Records and Health Information Technicians

Medical records and health information technicians are skilled professionals with many responsibilities. After all, it’s up to them to ensure the accuracy of patient billing and that patients do not pay for expensive medical procedures they never received!

You can determine whether you are suitable for this field by considering your skills. The ideal medical records or health information technician will have the following skills:

  • Good analytics skills. Medical records and health information techs have to navigate medical records efficiently. They also need to analyze diagnoses within complex treatment plans to figure out which code is appropriate for the patient at hand. Mistakes cost patients thousands of dollars.
  • A strong eye for detail. Medical billers and coders especially must be very accurate. As noted above, a mistake could be disastrous for patients.
  • Strong integrity and honesty. Health information technicians and medical records specialists have to be honest about the data they handle. They’re also required to keep patient confidentiality. This is a massive moral and legal responsibility both for medical records techs and their employers.

Additional soft skills may also be required depending on the position taken. For example, medical billers need good communication skills. They often must talk to patients directly and tell them how much they owe for medical treatments. This can be a delicate subject, and significant tact is required.

Furthermore, certain health information technicians, especially managers or administrators, must be strong leaders. They’re often called upon to manage multiple employees and handle many responsibilities.

Which Career is Right for You?

You can determine whether you should become a medical records tech or health information technician by:

  • Considering the job advancement options you want. Medical records technicians do not have the same advancement opportunities as health information technicians.
  • Determining how much money you want to make. Health information technicians typically earn more than medical billers or coders. However, medical billers and coders still make decent salaries.
  • Determining how much schooling you want to go through. Health information technicians require more education since most have bachelor’s or master’s degrees. In contrast, medical billers and coders only need a year or two of school.

You do not need to commit now. For example, medical billers and coders can become health information technicians later in their careers if they choose.

How to Become a Medical Records Technician

Becoming a medical records technician, either a medical biller or coder, is relatively straightforward.

Step 1 – Get a High School Diploma

Firstly, students must have a high school diploma or equivalent like a GED certificate. Many associate’s degree programs or certificate programs will require reasonably high grades in subjects such as biology or math.

Step 2 – Enroll in a Medical Records, Billing, or Coding Program

Next, students must enroll in a dedicated medical billing, coding, or records program. Many community colleges or other universities offer associate-level programs for just these purposes. Alternatively, students can enroll at technical or vocational schools, similar to nursing associate programs.

What Degree/Program Should You Pursue?

Most medical billing or coding programs take about one year or less to complete. They provide all the training you need to pass the certification exams and acquire an entry-level position. You can attend medical billing or coding classes online.

However, you may want to pursue a dedicated associate-level program. These take two years because they include a foundation of general education classes. These programs include specialized courses for medical information technology and coding or terminology.

You should pursue an associate degree program if you want to become a health informatics in the future. Although, you do not necessarily need to attend an in-person program. There are many online programs.

No matter which degree you choose, it must be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education or CAHIIM. An accredited program ensures that your coursework provides a thorough education. It also makes finding employment easier after graduation. You must have graduated from an accredited program to sit for your certification exam.

Step 3 – Pass Certification Exams

Whether you take an associate’s degree program or a one-year vocational program, you must pass a certification exam to become a medical records technician. You can apply for and pass multiple exams and get numerous certificates, including:

  • Nationally Registered Certified Coding Specialist or NRCCS
  • Certified Electronic Health Record Specialist or CEHRS
  • Certified Professional Coder or CBC
  • Certified Coding Associate or CCA

Certification requirements may vary by state or by unique position. To maximize chances of employment, you may want to acquire as many certificates as possible.

For example, cancer registrars (professionals who register patient cancer treatment information) must acquire a specific certification in several states. This certification is the Certified Tumor Registrar or CTR. Note that this certificate also requires completing a unique formal program and experience.

Step 4 – Pursue Employment

After acquiring a degree or certificate, you may then pursue job opportunities as a medical biller or coder. You can find employment at various medical centers, including clinics, hospitals, and more. You can also find work at addiction treatment centers, recovery centers, and similar locations.

How to Become a Health Information Technician

The path to becoming a health information technician is a little longer and more challenging than the path to becoming a medical records tech. However, it is still fairly straightforward.

Step 1 – Get a Bachelor’s Degree

Firstly, students must acquire a bachelor’s degree in an appropriate area. The bachelor’s degree sets you apart from those with only a medical billing or coding certificate or associate degree. The bachelor’s degree must be accredited by CAHIIM, just as with medical records tech degrees.

Technically, students only need an associate-level degree to apply for and take the RHIT certificate exam described below. However, most competitive positions require a bachelor’s degree at a bare minimum. Pursuing a bachelor’s degree can maximize your chance of employment.

What Degree Should You Pursue?

Students who wish to become RHITs can attend a wide variety of bachelor’s degree programs. Potential focuses include but are not limited to:

Generally, a bachelor’s degree in a broad but related subject like nursing is not enough to achieve employment as an RHIT. Your degree must be focused and specialized in the medical informatics field to be appropriate.

Step 2 – Pass Certification Exams

All aspiring RHITs must pass written exams administered by the American Health Information Management Association. The Registered Health Information Technology certification exam is multiple-choice. Students take this exam in the final term of their college program. The exam covers content including but not limited to:

  • Medical coding compliance
  • Data content and structure
  • Data analytics and how to use it
  • Cycle management for revenue
  • Leadership skills
  • Patient data access, disclosure, and privacy policies

Alternatively, students can complete the Registered Health Information Administrators or RHIA exam. This exam is ideal for RHITs who assume management responsibilities or oversee other health tech employees. One or both exams may be required depending on the exact position.

Fortunately, students will usually complete one or both exams as a matter of course during their programs. If a student completes their program but still needs to acquire certification, they can sit for the exam at any point.

Step 3 – Pursue Employment

Once you have acquired a degree and certificate, you can pursue employment as an RHIT or RHIA. Like medical billers and coders, RHITs can typically find work at hospitals, clinics, other medical centers, and more.

Is a Master’s Degree Worthwhile?

After acquiring a bachelor’s degree, RHITs may wish to pursue further education such as a master’s degree. Graduate degrees can be beneficial if you want even more responsibilities. Example degrees include a Masters of Science in Nursing Informatics.

However, master’s degrees are not necessary. They may only be worthwhile if you know that a specific health information tech position demands it. Many master’s degrees will require another two years to complete after a bachelor’s degree.

Considering In-Person vs. Online Degrees

You should also consider the differences between online programs and in-person programs. In-person programs may benefit those who learn best when they can speak directly to professors. However, online programs are also plentiful and offer many benefits.

Bachelor’s degrees in health information technology and similar subjects don’t typically have practicum components. Therefore, students can complete online degrees without having to visit clinics or hospitals during their studies.

Furthermore, online degrees are flexible and ideal for working professionals who juggle multiple responsibilities. GetEducated.com has a thorough list of accredited associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in this industry.

Salaries for Medical Records and Health Information Technicians

The salaries for medical records and health information technicians can vary dramatically. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical records and health information specialists have an average salary of $45,000 per year. The lowest-paid 10% earn less than $29,130 per year. The highest 10% earn more than $100,000 per year.

Therefore, students should choose where they work wisely and consider the potential for advancement. Medical billers and coders usually start with average salaries of around $30,000 per year.

Given time, these professionals can achieve seniority and earn regular raises to increase their pay. RHITs typically make more than standard medical billers or coders. They also work longer hours and may be required to take on additional responsibilities.

Alternatively, these professionals may become pharmacy technicians, a role closely related to medical records techs. These professionals earn average salaries of $35,100 per year.

Those who become RHITs could eventually become medical and health services managers. These multidisciplinary professionals earn average salaries of over $100,000 per year. They only require a bachelor’s degree, although a master’s degree may make employment more likely.

A number of good-paying jobs are available in healthcare at every level of education. No matter how a student progresses, the medical records and health information tech industry generally afford good salaries.

Job Outlook for Medical Records and Health Information Technicians

Employment opportunities for medical records and health information technicians look good for now. The demand for these professionals will likely increase with time.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the medical records and health information specialist field will grow by 9% through 2030. This should result in another 34,000 available jobs. However, America’s population is aging in general. This aging population will result in more medical appointments and procedures. This will, in turn, lead to more medical coding and billing needs.

Thus, the need for more medical billers and coders will increase over the next few years. Medical information technicians should also be increasingly necessary for hospitals and clinics around the country.

Job Progression for Medical Records and Health Information Technicians

The type and number of degrees and certificates determine your job progression.

As described earlier, medical billers and coders do not usually progress into different careers. Instead, they may gradually earn seniority and get higher salaries as a result. Some medical billers and coders may oversee junior team members in some medical clinics.

Health information technicians have a much broader range of job possibilities. They may become:

  • Senior health information technicians
  • Health information managers, overseeing groups of similar technicians
  • Health services managers
  • Hospital managers or administrators
  • Registered health information administrators

If you want to have a long and fulfilling career with many advancements, the RHIT pathway holds your future. However, medical billing or coding could be perfect if you want a stable and consistent career. Such careers are excellent for those whose primary focuses lie in their families or hobbies.

Summary

Ultimately, both medical records techs and health information technicians are vital professionals in the healthcare industry. They both handle patient data and medical coding tasks. Health information technicians may also perform additional duties, such as categorizing data, ensuring patient data privacy, and more.

Students can pursue both professional outcomes through accredited online degree programs. Fortunately, GetEducated has a comprehensive catalog of high-quality online programs for medical records and health information techs. Check out the list of online degree programs today!

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