In today’s information age, data is what drives productivity and decision-making. This is especially true in health care. Health information management (HIM) has been with us in one form or another since the dawn of medicine. It is only recently — with the rise of digitization, data aggregation, and analysis — that the true potential of health informatics has become apparent, and with it the importance of properly trained HIM professionals as caretakers of that data.

“The practice of HIM in Canada focuses on the individual, patient-level information — including demographic data and details regarding care and treatment — as well as at the aggregate level, where data is grouped together for secondary purposes,” says Kelly Abrams, PhD, CHIM and Vice President of the Canadian College of Health Information Management (CCHIM). “In a legal and regulatory sense, the health record and the information it contains serve uses that go beyond its primary purpose as a communication tool: the record is used to document and communicate diagnoses, treatments, clinical services, and the care provided to the patient. Subsequent uses of the information contained within the record include the predictive modelling of disease, planning and management of resources, health care funding, public health surveillance, education, and research.”

Making this all run smoothly requires well-trained professionals operating deep within the system. “An analogy commonly used to describe health information management is that of a water treatment or plumbing system,” says Abrams. “The system is made up of pipes, connections, and valves, and then there is the water flowing throughout. The HIM professional’s job is to make sure that the water quality is maintained.”

The complex environment of a hybrid system

HIM in Canada is in a state of transition right now, where proper management of a complex multimedia data set is more important than ever. “Health information is in a hybrid state where it is partly paper and partly digital,” says Abrams. “The HIM professional is familiar with maintaining both types of data as we continue to transition toward fully electronic records. This hybrid nature can cause many challenges, for example, what constitutes the legal health record? It’s definitely a complex environment.”

The complexity of the HIM environment is what led to the call for and creation of The Canadian Health Information Management Lifecycle, published by the Canadian Health Information Management Association (CHIMA) in May 2017. The Lifecycle provides guidance for individuals and organizations that work with health information in Canada today. When health information is not managed properly, the outcomes for both the patient and the system can be disastrous.

“You can end up with situations where there are two records for one patient, in which case previous treatments and diagnoses are not available to the clinicians,” says Abrams. “Conversely, there can be cases where information from two different people is entered onto the same record, with an individual potentially receiving incorrect care. In Canada, we have seen such incidents publicized where incorrect information in an electronic system was found to have negatively affected patient care.”

Nationwide standardization

It is crucial that HIM professionals receive proper training and that certification standards be maintained nationwide. CHIMA performs a vital role as Canada’s sole source of credentialed HIM professionals who focus on four domains of practice that include electronic HIM, data quality, privacy, and HIM standards. Graduates of accredited programs can pursue HIM certification at the diploma level, the undergraduate level, and, soon, the masters level. The standardized HIM education curriculum ensures that employers can be confident that graduates possess a universal knowledge base no matter where in the country they attended school.

Health Information Management is a field of study that is often overlooked by students interested in a career in health care. Raising the profile of HIM is important for our health care system and presents a real opportunity for the next generation. “There’s a demonstrated need nationally for certified HIM professionals,” says Abrams. “The HIM profession has emerged as a dynamic technology-driven discipline whose practitioners contribute to health care, patient safety, and privacy in a number of meaningful ways.”