Qualifications Can Be Learned
When I found out the position wasn’t for an HIM director role,
I really wasn’t interested, but the company kept calling me for
interviews. Every time I interviewed with someone, I told them
I wasn’t qualified or interested in the position. Undeterred, they
continued to call. I proceeded to meet with a panel of interviewers and ultimately the CEO.
Despite my admonishments that I wasn’t qualified, I was offered the position of vice president of business services and
HIPAA officer at REMSA. As I learned over the first two years,
ambulance billing is a skill that can be learned. But what I
brought to the position is expertise that cannot be taught and
that I gained as an HIM professional—mastery of processes,
people, technology, and organization. Five years later I am still
leading all the billing, revenue cycle, and HIPAA compliance efforts at REMSA. This article details my story.
Student to HIM Director to Vendor to Alternative Career
I first heard about HIM from my neighbor, who was an A.R. T.,
while in high school. Being pragmatic, I researched the profession to make sure I would be able to get a job and make money
after college graduation.
First, I went to the library and checked out the occupational
handbook. Next, I checked the job postings in the Los Angeles
Times. Finally, I interviewed several HIM directors to learn more
about their responsibilities. Each of the directors I interviewed
was very honest, and shared the pros and cons of the job with
me. From my perspective, the need for strong organizational
skills was the most intriguing aspect of HIM. I was hooked. I was
accepted into the Loma Linda University program, and graduated with a degree in medical records management in 1980.
In my first job out of school, I served as director of a 73-bed
podiatric hospital, an entirely paper environment at the time. I
worked there for 18 months, and in 1982 applied for a two-year
leadership program offered by the hospital’s owner. I was the only
woman accepted into the program, which focused on managing
every department within the organization. This course became a
solid foundation for my future career expansion beyond HIM.
IT Opens the Door to Vendor Careers
After a few years at the podiatric hospital and a few stops along
the way, I moved on to become the HIM director at Washoe
Medical Center (WMC) in Reno, NV. Making the shift from a
very small organization to very large one was initially challenging. I worked at WMC for 12 years, taking on more and more
responsibility. I was ultimately responsible for tumor registry,
case management, and pathology and radiology transcription,
and was also involved in quality and the trauma registry.
As one of the first hospitals to implement document imaging
in the 1990s, WMC received a lot of press for that accomplishment. I oversaw the installation of the system and participated
in the organization’s move to an enterprise-wide hospital information system (HIS).
Information technology (IT) is a natural place for HIM professionals because we understand both the practical and operational sides of systems. I believe that HIM is the bridge between
IT and the rest of the world, because HIM professionals are linear thinkers. Like IT, they understand the organization, categories, and tables within a system.
After leaving WMC, I felt the need for a break from hospitals
and spent the next decade working for vendors to implement
and build I T systems. The transition from hospital to vendor was
extremely difficult at first, for three reasons:
1. Knowledge—I had relied heavily on hospital customized
software and had not learned standard word processing,
Excel, and other programs. It took me some time to master
2. Technical—I went from being an expert to a worker bee,
which was very difficult. I knew more about the subject
matter than the technical aspects of the job.
3. Social—Working remotely was a challenge. I missed the
camaraderie and companionship of an office.
I also helped my brother build his loan signing business to
help relieve family pressures during that time. It was here that
all my prior education and life experiences came together to enlighten my next career move—a return to HIM.
(Above) Chris Thorne Watanabe, RHIA. (Right) For 34 years, Watanabe and her Loma Linda University HIM program classmates have met annually. HIM friendships are a long-term
career asset, Watanabe says.