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New Health Information Degree Tailor-Made for Career Enhancement

Kathryn M. Barbera, on the job with the Susquehanna Health Medical Group. (Photo provided by Susquehanna Health) She has an associate degree from a well-respected institution and a rewarding job with one of the region’s top employers, so what could be more attractive to Kathryn M. Barbera? How about a front-row seat for future advancement in one of the nation’s fastest-growing fields without compromising her current position?

Developed especially for working professionals and offered exclusively in a convenient distance-learning format, Pennsylvania College of Technology’s new four-year health information management major is the first of its kind to be offered by a public institution in Pennsylvania.

And for Barbera, who obtained her two-year degree in health information technology from the college in May 2007 (along with a certificate as a coding specialist) and who now will be able to earn a bachelor’s degree without forsaking her job to return to school it’s a perfect fit.

A full-time employee of Susquehanna Health Medical Group, the multispecialty physician group practice at Susquehanna Health, she skillfully makes sense of the diagnosis codes and billing for an increasing number of physicians’ services, an avalanche of data that allows for insurance reimbursement and statistical research and comprises medical record-keeping in this electronic age.

Once considered the stuff of high-tech fantasy enabling a vacationing doctor to remotely access his or her office files after being paged by an ailing patient, for instance health information technology is among those futuristic careers whose time definitely is now.

“Employers are looking for more-educated and certified staff,” Barbera said, noting that both the volume and confidentiality of patients’ health information require absolute precision and responsibility. That need becomes even more prevalent as the profession moves from the decades-old diagnostic codes (which assign specific values to everything from the flu to heart failure) to a new set of numbers aimed at global uniformity of data collection and storage.

With the same responsiveness that it employed when recently adding “green” construction and computer-network security to its curricular offerings, the new baccalaureate major again puts Penn College in fine position to readily guide its alumni into meaningful postgraduate employment.

“The creation of regional, national and international health information networks has brought a phenomenal potential for new jobs on the horizon,” said Daniel K. Christopher, assistant professor of health information in the college’s School of Business and Computer Technologies. “In order to improve patient care, physicians will need access to information. It’s a great career outlook.”

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 49-percent growth in the number of health information management positions by next year, making it one of the 10 fastest-growing health-care occupations in the nation. Those jobs in nursing homes and hospitals, law firms and insurance companies represent a wise move for qualified employees.

A new graduate with an associate degree in health information technology can earn a salary in the $25,000-to-$30,000 range, Christopher explained; a bachelor’s degree in information management can raise that average to as high as $50,000.

Recently discussing the new major as it was heading for endorsement by the college’s Curriculum Committee and approval by the administration, Christopher and his deans in the School of Business and Computer Technologies said the four-year degree was “the next logical step.” The number of two-year graduates in the health-information field has reached “critical mass,” they said, making it the right time to offer the heightened education that the explosively expanding field demands.

As explained by Christopher; Edward A. Henninger, dean of business and computer technologies; and Francesca M. Troutman, assistant dean of business and computer technologies; the new major is designed for graduates of Penn College’s associate-degree program (or similar two-year programs at other institutions) and others in the field who carry the Registered Health Information Technician credential.

Attainment of the four-year diploma requires fewer than 70 credits beyond the two-year degree. By taking only two or three online courses at a time, that can be accomplished in two years a boon for Barbera and other working professionals juggling continuing education with the need for a regular paycheck.

“It’s a great program,” said Barbera, who started her Susquehanna Health employment as a unit secretary around the time she began classes in the Fall 2004 semester. “It’s all distance learning, and it won’t be that many more classes. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without Penn College.”

The Central Pennsylvania Health Information Management Association, which serves the middle corridor of the state from Altoona to Lancaster and points north, is supportive of the new major, recognizing the need for a four-year degree and offering to be represented on its corporate advisory board.

As the first class of students enrolls for the Fall 2009 semester, the major also was spotlighted at a May 18-20 meeting of the Pennsylvania Health Information Management Association in State College.

For more information about majors in the School of Business and Computer Technologies, visit online or call 570-327-4517. For general information about Penn College, visit on the Web , e-mail or call toll-free 800-367-9222.

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