By David Chilton
Special to The Toronto Sun
Keeping medical records was once a lightly regarded "clerical" job done almost exclusively by women who found their own training and career paths.
That's changed. Health information management, as it's now called, is one of the most in-demand professions in the entire health-care sector.
Heather Donovan, health information management program co-ordinator at George Brown College in Toronto, says the graduates of her two-year medical records technician program are snapped up.
Eldridge Baluca, a second-year student in the George Brown health information management program, says the field calls for the perfect mix of his computer and business skills.
"The employment prospects are excellent," Donovan says. "We can't meet the needs that are out there. I do a lot of liaison with the health-care sector, and they try to recruit directly from the graduating class."
In fact, Donovan continues, last year's students were faced with the difficulty of deciding among multiple offers at pay rates that start at about $23 an hour, for staff positions in hospitals and even more for contract jobs.
Health record professionals manage patient information using computers -- hence its shift from "clerical". The data they capture and analyze is used in the delivery and the financial and general management of health care.
They may specialize in areas such risk analysis, quality improvement and clinical-financial resource integration. Increasingly, vendors of medical records software are also hiring Donovan's graduates.
Over the last two or three years, the George Brown program has been oversubscribed, Donovan says.
Last year, the school accepted about 50 students, about 10 of them men. Students range in age from late teens and up. Donovan estimates that one-third of her students come directly from high school and the other two-thirds are career changers.
"We get a lot of interest, too, from foreign-trained individuals who have worked in a health-care field, and we get a fair number of degree holders looking for complementary education," Donovan says.
The George Brown program began in 1987 and is the only course of its kind in Toronto. Before 1987, anyone who wanted to study health records management had to attend the program taught at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.
Tuition fees at George Brown are about $2,800 a year. Graduates of the program must pass a national certification exam, and the profession is regulated by the Canadian College of Health Records Administrators.
For those students who want further credentials in their chosen field, there's a part-time degree completion course available at Ryerson University.
"We focus on the management side at Ryerson, but we give academic credit for work done at George Brown," says Winston Isaac, interim director of the university's School of Health Sciences.
It takes about three years for a student to finish the requirements for a bachelor of health administration at Ryerson, Isaac continues. Courses are given in the evening, on weekends and over the Internet. Tuition fees start at $435 for one three-hour course.
Winston Isaac is interim director of Ryerson University's school of health sciences, which lets students focus complete their degree and focus on the management side of the profession.
One of those career changers Donovan spoke about is Eldridge Baluca. The second-year George Brown student was a travel counsellor for 10 years before choosing health information management.
"I was thinking more about job security," says Baluca, who's married to a nurse. "I was looking at jobs for the future and went through a number of job sites. That's where I came across health records technician."
Baluca based his decision to go into health information management largely on logic. He says he has a background in computers and a fondness for business, so his new career will allow him to combine many aspects of both.
(Reach freelancer David Chilton at firstname.lastname@example.org
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