by Jim Condon, MSA, RHIA, CTR, and Amanda Barefield, EdD, RHIA, LNHA
The demand for registered health information administrators continues to outpace the available supply of credentialed graduates. One solution to address this shortfall has been the availability of postbaccalaureate certificate programs. A health information administration department at an academic health sciences center, which has historically offered a traditional bachelor of science degree in health information administration, has offered a postbaccalaureate certificate program in health information administration since 2001. As part of the program’s ongoing quality review/performance improvement process, program faculty conducted an analysis to determine whether success on the registered health information administrator (RHIA) certification examination was the same, regardless of the program type or method of course delivery. Results of this analysis demonstrated that the postbaccalaureate certificate program is a viable alternative for producing successful health information administration graduates, increasing program enrollment, and increasing the number of RHIAs in the workforce. Health information administration programs may consider a postbaccalaureate certificate program as a way to increase the number of graduates and in turn increase the health information administration workforce.
As part of a health information administration (HIA) educational program’s ongoing evaluation process, a study was conducted to compare the level of success on the registered health information administrator (RHIA) certification examination between graduates of a bachelor of science program in HIA and graduates of a postbaccalaureate certificate program in the same field. The purpose of the study was to assess whether equality of outcomes was being achieved between the two groups of graduates. The measurement of graduate success on the RHIA certification examination was determined by comparing graduates’ scores from their first attempt at taking the examination. Success on the RHIA certification examination is achieved when the graduate scores at or higher than the threshold set by the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), the national association of HIA professionals. The threshold during the time of the study was a score of 102 in 2001–2005 and 103 in 2006–2010. In addition, the study examined whether the length of time that elapsed between the date of graduation and date when the RHIA certification examination was taken influenced graduates’ scores on the examination.
The demand for credentialed health information administrators continues to outpace the available supply of credentialed graduates. This shortfall could potentially compromise the quality of care received by patients.1 Acknowledging this challenge, a number of HIA academic programs began offering postbaccalaureate certificates in HIA in an effort to increase the availability of credentialed HIA graduates. In addition, a host of HIA programs are now delivering their programs via online learning, providing access to populations that, in the past, were unable to attend traditional on-campus programs.
The model of the postbaccalaureate certificate in HIA enables qualified individuals to attend an accelerated version of a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM) and acquire eligibility to take the RHIA certification examination upon completion of the program. By recognizing that some graduates already possess many of the skills and much of the experience needed in the HIA profession because of previously earned degrees, the program expands the pool of potential applicants by creating a special curriculum for these individuals. For example, instead of reteaching management and finance principles to business degree graduates, the postbaccalaureate certificate program acknowledges that these graduates instead require the clinical knowledge unique and appropriate to HIA and delivers it to them in a condensed format.
The programs under study included both a bachelor of science degree program in HIA and a postbaccalaureate certificate program in HIA. As part of ongoing program evaluation, an analysis was conducted to determine whether postbaccalaureate certificate program graduates were achieving the same degree of success on the RHIA certification examination as the bachelor of science program graduates.
Although AHIMA has strongly encouraged employers to exclusively hire credentialed health information professionals, possession of the RHIA credential is not required to work professionally in health information administration. Motivation, therefore, for a graduate in HIA to take the RHIA certification examination may not be as compelling as it would be if credentialing were mandatory. Many graduates who recognize that certification is not a requirement decide to wait before taking the examination, opting first to find work or to take a few months off. Sometimes a significant amount of time elapses before the graduate finally decides to take the examination. Speculation exists as to whether this span of down time impacts the graduate’s performance on the examination.
Previous studies in other healthcare professions have produced equivocal results. In 2003, a study evaluated such down time of graduates of registered nursing programs who took the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX).2 Nursing program graduates are required to pass the NCLEX in order to practice professionally. The study results suggested that the elapsed time between the days of graduation and examination was not significantly correlated with the examination pass rate. However, in another study, more than 244,000 NCLEX results were inspected, and it was discovered that the number of days between graduation and examination was inversely related to the pass rate.3 Because of the inconclusiveness of these research results, faculty in the HIA program highlighted in this study conducted research to investigate whether a relationship existed between the number of days from the graduation date to the date that the graduate completed the RHIA certification examination and the score on the RHIA certification examination.
Bachelor of Science Degree Program
The HIA program offers a traditional “2 + 2” bachelor of science degree program in HIA. Applicants to the program must first complete 60 semester hours of core curriculum courses as outlined by the institution (Table 1); accepted applicants enter the program as juniors. In 2006, an online option was introduced for students unable to attend traditional on-campus classes. Since that time, the program has experienced an increase in enrollment, with the majority of students choosing the online option.
The traditional bachelor of science degree program curriculum is composed of 69 semester hours offered over the course of four semesters (two academic years). Table 2 portrays the courses that make up each semester. As in most professional programs, the courses must be taken sequentially in strict accordance with a predetermined curriculum schedule.
Postbaccalaureate Certificate Program
In 2000, the HIA program welcomed its first postbaccalaureate certificate students; the class consisted of students with backgrounds in allied health and in nursing. To be eligible for the postbaccalaureate certificate program, potential applicants were required to possess a bachelor’s degree in one of the allied health sciences, a bachelor’s degree in nursing, or an associate’s degree in nursing with a bachelor’s degree in some other discipline. Applicants must also have completed two program prerequisites: an introductory computer course completed within the previous five years and a basic financial accounting course. The duration of the postbaccalaureate certificate program is three semesters or one academic year.
The postbaccalaureate certificate program curriculum is composed of 11 semester hours of management and finance courses, 7 semester hours of HIA theory-related courses, 2 semester hours of healthcare systems technology courses, and 4 semester hours of coding and reimbursement courses. In addition, students complete a professional practicum of 40 clock hours (2 semester hours) during the summer semester for a program total of 26 semester hours. See Table 2 for the program curriculum.
Throughout the recruitment process, it became clear that the majority of the individuals who expressed an interest in earning a postbaccalaureate certificate were neither nurses nor allied health professionals as originally envisioned. Rather, most held one of several degrees: bachelor or master of business administration, bachelor or master of science in healthcare administration, or bachelor or master of science in information systems or computer science. Recognizing this trend, the program faculty reexamined the curriculum and discovered that with an adjustment of program content and the prerequisite requirements, these individuals could become eligible for the postbaccalaureate certificate program as well. Therefore, a separate “business and healthcare administration and computer science” curriculum track was added alongside the “allied health and nursing” curriculum track to accommodate this population. See Table 2 for the business and healthcare administration and computer science curriculum track.
The business track, designed for the students described in the previous paragraph, includes 7 semester hours of HIA theory-related courses, 2 semester hours of healthcare systems technology courses, 4 semester hours of coding and reimbursement courses, 7 semester hours of clinically focused courses, and a 1-semester-hour management course in addition to the professional practicum of 40 clock hours, for a program that consists of 23 semester hours. The courses Anatomy & Physiology I and II are prerequisites for the program. Applicants’ transcripts, regardless of track, are carefully evaluated, and additional prerequisites or corequisites that are required to complete the applicant’s entry-level professional knowledge are added to the student’s curriculum plan.
As part of the HIA department’s ongoing program evaluation process, a study was conducted to ascertain whether a difference existed between the outcomes of the bachelor of science degree graduates and the outcomes of the postbaccalaureate certificate graduates. Program evaluation is a formal process that systematically examines student achievement throughout the entire curriculum; it is an ongoing process designed to monitor and improve student learning.4 Specifically, the program wanted to determine whether both sets of graduates were exhibiting equal degrees of success on the individual’s first RHIA examination attempt. This information is important because the program has a responsibility to provide appropriately qualified graduates who, regardless of the duration of the curriculum or the type of program, possess the knowledge required to successfully pass the RHIA examination. Credentialing examination scores serve as a tool to measure an individual’s level of competence in a particular area of professional practice. In turn, these scores are also used as a measure of program quality and are provided as part of the annual reaccreditation process to CAHIIM.
In educational research, one seeks to find relationships among educational variables. Evaluation, however, is generally focused on a particular educational program; the intent of program evaluation is not to generalize the results to other situations but to focus on the particular program and what future decisions to make about it.5 Program faculty members were interested in assessing the effectiveness of the postbaccalaureate certificate program and, depending upon evaluation results, making changes to the program for the future.
A convenience sample was utilized that included data on graduates who had taken the RHIA certification examination between January 1, 2001, and December 31, 2010, and for whom examination results had been reported (N = 119). Graduation date, examination date, and examination raw scores were acquired from RHIA examination results provided by AHIMA. Age of the graduates was obtained from HIA program applications. During this time frame, the only change to the RHIA certification examination was a slight adjustment in the passing score.6 Descriptive statistics identified the characteristics of the two groups under study. Mean scores and standard deviations were calculated. Student’s t-test for independent samples was used to determine whether any statistically significant difference existed between the RHIA certification examination scores of the bachelor of science program graduates and the scores of the postbaccalaureate certificate program graduates. To survey whether the number of days between graduation and examination was associated with the RHIA certification examination score, the Pearson product-moment correlation was calculated for graduates of both the bachelor of science program and the postbaccalaureate certificate program.
This study included a sample of 119 graduates; 83 were from the bachelor of science program and 36 were from the postbaccalaureate certificate program. The mean starting age for the bachelor of science program was 26.13 years (SD = 6.679), and the mean starting age for the certificate program was 38.19 years (SD = 8.294). The combined mean age was 29.78 years. The mean score on the RHIA certification examination achieved by the bachelor of science program graduates was 117.93 (SD = 17.806), and the mean score on the RHIA certification examination achieved by the certificate program graduates was 119.75 (SD = 15.732), with a combined mean score of 118.48.
The data reveal that 78 percent of the bachelor of science program graduates completed the RHIA certification examination, while 64 percent of the certificate program graduates completed the examination. Overall, the exam completion rate of the combined programs was 73 percent. Of the graduates who completed the examination, 92 percent took it within a year after graduation. An independent-samples t-test was calculated to compare the graduates’ average age at the start of each program. The difference in age at the start of each program was significant; t(117) = –8.395, p = .000. An independent-samples t-test was calculated to compare RHIA certification examination scores between bachelor of science program graduates and certificate program graduates. There was not a significant difference in the scores for bachelor of science program graduates and certificate program graduates; t(117) = 0.531, p = .201.
A Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient was computed to assess the relationship between the RHIA certification examination score and the number of days between graduation and examination. There was a weak negative correlation between the two variables, r = –0.175, n = 119, p = .056. The records of two graduates whose times between graduation and examination were considered outliers (more than 1,000 days) were removed from the data. The Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient was recalculated, this time revealing an insignificant positive correlation, r = 0.024, n = 117, p = .797.
Because the postbaccalaureate certificate program is condensed into three semesters and offers fewer credit hours, it was necessary to determine whether the certificate program graduates were as successful on the RHIA certification examination as the bachelor of science program graduates. One program objective for ongoing accreditation is to provide both cohorts of program graduates with the same, high-quality education experience despite the different approaches and models of each program. The study results suggested that graduates of both programs fared equally well on the RHIA certification examination and that this program objective has been attained.
One explanation for the success of the certificate program was the approach of the students that completed the program. The average age of the certificate program cohort was 12 years older than that of the bachelor of science program cohort. Many certificate program graduates may have envisioned the program as an efficient and effective method of making a career transformation in a short period of time, with 100 percent of the curriculum online, earned from a highly regarded institution at a reasonable cost. These graduates also recognized the importance and potential consequences of this career decision and may have approached the entire experience with a sense of urgency, commitment, and focus that may have offset any negative aspects of the condensed curriculum and the decreased number of credit hours.
The study results suggested that the amount of time between graduation and completion of the RHIA certification examination did not significantly impact graduates’ scores on the examination, even with outliers removed. The scatterplot in Figure 1 summarizes the results. The insignificant association of the number of days between graduation and the examination date with the RHIA certification examination score was somewhat surprising given the amount of anecdotal data to the contrary. Conventional wisdom assumes that as the length of time between graduation and the RHIA certification examination increases, the resulting likelihood of a lower score should also increase. With that conventional wisdom in mind, graduates of both programs are encouraged by faculty to continue studying and reviewing previous coursework until they take the examination. They are also provided with a list of RHIA certification examination preparation materials and must complete the department’s comprehensive mock examination shortly before graduation. These processes and other unidentified influences might have colluded to mitigate the time factor regarding the RHIA certification examination. It is also possible that some graduates, after having waited a certain amount of time without taking the examination, decided ultimately not to take the examination, decreasing the number of attempts and the number of lower scores.
Finally, evidence from this study suggests that a properly designed postbaccalaureate certificate program in HIA can increase the number of credentialed HIA professionals that are available in the workforce. The availability of more RHIAs enhances the prospect that supply will equal demand in the workforce and, consequently, increases the likelihood that patients’ quality of care will not be compromised.
It should be noted that the curricula of several other postbaccalaureate certificate programs in HIA were examined during the literature review process; the programs differ in length, content, and structure. Currently, there is little research available that reports outcomes of other such programs; however, as other postbaccalaureate programs gather enough data to conduct outcome studies, it is expected that a pattern of HIA best practices specific to postbaccalaureate education and subsequent professional credentialing will emerge.
The results of this study are from bachelor of science and postbaccalaureate certificate program graduates at one academic health sciences center and are specific to the curricula and program formats offered at the institution. Therefore, the results may not be entirely generalizable to another institution. In addition, the paucity of data provided with the RHIA certification examination results limited the scope of the research.
Recommendations for Further Study
As a result of this study, the researchers recommend that the following questions be considered during future research:
- Are there differences in RHIA certification examination domain scores achieved between postbaccalaureate certificate and bachelor of science program graduates?
- Are there differences among RHIA certification examination scores based on various curriculum models and course delivery methods for both postbaccalaureate certificate and bachelor of science program graduates?
- Do any other individual graduate variables, such as demographic and academic variables, have an impact on RHIA certification examination scores?
- Is there a relationship between program comprehensive examination (mock RHIA examination) scores and success on the RHIA certification examination for both postbaccalaureate certificate and bachelor of science program graduates?
Results of this study may be used as a foundation for developing best practices for HIA programs that are considering implementing a postbaccalaureate certificate program. Specifically, other programs considering such an approach could use the curriculum template established by the program in this study as a starting point for their own curriculum design. The results of this study suggest that it is possible to deliver a postbaccalaureate certificate program that, combined with a student’s previous bachelor’s or even master’s degree experience, provides the knowledge necessary for program graduates to be successful on the RHIA certification examination. Leveraging potential students’ previously completed degree courses, the postbaccalaureate certificate program examined in this study was especially attractive to such students because it is offered entirely online and can be completed in less than a year. The particular model that this HIA program employs will continue to be evaluated and adjusted based on both qualitative and quantitative feedback.
Graduates of both programs will still be strongly encouraged to take the RHIA certification examination as soon as possible after graduation and, in some cases in accordance with recent AHIMA guidelines, prior to graduation. The objective is for every graduate to take and pass the examination; however, as long as not all potential employers insist upon newly graduated professionals obtaining their professional credentials, it is not realistic to expect every program graduate to earn RHIA certification. Educational program faculty should remind students and graduates that earning the RHIA credential serves as confirmation that a graduate possesses the entry-level knowledge required of the health information profession as prescribed by AHIMA.
As the healthcare industry continues to implement electronic health records and works toward compliance with federal initiatives such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), acquisition of the RHIA credential will likely become even more necessary. This study demonstrates that a postbaccalaureate certificate program in HIA is a viable means of increasing the number of credentialed HIA professionals and reducing the workforce shortage of health information administrators. Additionally, a potential model of best practices for the postbaccalaureate certificate approach to HIA education has been identified.
Jim Condon, MSA, RHIA, CTR, is an associate professor and program director in the Department of Health Informatics at Georgia Health Sciences University in Augusta, GA.
Amanda Barefield, EdD, RHIA, LNHA, is an associate professor in the Department of Health Informatics at Georgia Health Sciences University in Augusta, GA.
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Jim Condon, MSA, RHIA, CTR, and Amanda Barefield, EdD, RHIA, LNHA. “Assessment of Success on the RHIA Certification Examination: A Comparison of Baccalaureate Program Graduates and Postbaccalaureate Certificate Program Graduates.” Perspectives in Health Information Management (Fall 2012): 1-12.