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Health Information Technology Programs are a HIT at Cypress and Saddleback Colleges Programs

December 21, 2019
Double exposure image with stethascope overlaid with technology looing icons and graphics

The field of health information technology (HIT) is where the medical needs of patients and the information age come together in an emerging, ever-evolving, and in-demand career path. In Orange County, Cypress and Saddleback Colleges are leading the way in HIT education, helping provide high-demand jobs to individuals while filling the field’s ever-expanding regional workforce needs.

Like many occupations in the health field, demand is rising. By 2030, it’s estimated that one in five Californians will be of retirement age, a time when their healthcare needs will increase, according to Laurel Beck and Hans Johnson in Planning for California’s Growing Senior Population. At the same time, while demand is climbing, the California Department of Public Health estimates that two-thirds of its workforce will retire by 2022, creating even more vacancies that will need to filled by well-educated professionals.

Careers in the HIT field are no exception to that trend and projected future need.

“We know that HIT is a significant need for all healthcare facilities, acute and non-acute,” says Saddleback College’s dean of health sciences and human services, Diane Pestolesi.

Cypress College HIT Faculty Patti Spitler agrees that demand will only continue to climb. In fact, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand is projected to increase 11 percent for health information technicians and 18 percent for HIT managers by the year 2028.

“It’s a growing field that’s definitely a good option for students,” says Spitler.

An HIT professional’s work covers every aspect of how data is used in the healthcare profession, from data analytics to information governance and security. Professionals need to have interdisciplinary knowledge of best practices in IT and the ins and outs of healthcare, as well as cybersecurity, federal and state laws, and insurance policies.

“In a nutshell, it’s caring for the patient by caring for their information that has come from multiple sources, and then ensuring that it goes to the right places at the right time,” says Safiah Mamoon, department chair and program director of the HIT program at Saddleback. According to Mamoon, it’s about stewarding data “from the time the patient first contacts the doctor…to being discharged from the hospital.”

In Orange County, Cypress and Saddleback Colleges house two of the few HIT associate degree programs in the state.

“We were the only program in Orange County at the community college level for many years up until Saddleback’s program opened a few years ago,” says Rebecca Gomez, dean of health science at Cypress College, where the HIT program has been going strong for over 40 years and whose last national board exam pass rate was 100 percent.

Saddleback’s HIT program arrived on the scene in 2011 as part of their Medical Assistant program. In 2014, in response to rising demand, it became its own independent program and now educates about 150 students a year.

“In California, only about eight or nine colleges have a fully accredited [HIT] associate degree program, and only half of them are fully online, including us,” says Mamoon.

While Saddleback’s program does include 50 on-site clinical hours, it was one of the first HIT programs in the state to go fully online.

When students as far away as Sacramento and San Francisco couldn’t drive to the college for health center or counseling appointments, the college evolved student services to accommodate. “While Saddleback had online courses, we were really the first fully online degree,” says Mamoon about Saddleback’s HIT program.

Another hallmark of these two programs is the importance of work experience.

During their last semester at Cypress, students have a chance to take advantage of the school’s robust professional network to find work at partnering facilities.

“They’re putting the theory they’ve been learning for the last two years into practice,” says Spitler. “It really helps drive home what they’ve learned.” 

But the benefits don’t just apply to students. According to Spitler, hospital and healthcare facility directors also love working with the well-prepared Cypress students: “They love giving them jobs. So sometimes doing their internship actually turns into a position.”

Similarly, Saddleback’s students are equally well-received: “Many of the HIT graduates, through their internship or externship exposure, get offered jobs before they even complete the program,” says Pestolesi. “They’ll start at around $40,000 a year and quickly advance to almost double that.”

According to the US Department of Labor, the median wage for HITs in California is $47,030, with top salaries hitting $83,440 with the right education and experience. As a whole, the occupation is projected to grow at a rate of 16 percent in California by 2026, more than double the average for all occupations across the county. In addition, California not only employs more medical records and health information technicians than any other state in the country, but also pays them the third highest salary of all states.

In addition to being a great field to advance or start a career, HIT can also open up avenues to healthcare professionals looking for a change.

“We know that health information technology is something that’s very attractive to incumbent workers who no longer want or can tolerate, for example, the 12-hour shifts that maybe a nurse has to do,” says Pestolesi. “So, a lot of nurses will go back and take several classes to be able to then work as health information technicians or in the field doing coding or billing.”

As the field continues to evolve, so do the programs at Cypress and Saddleback. At Cypress College, the department is currently in the process of revamping the curriculum to include two new tracks in data management and revenue cycle management.

Cypress is also reestablishing a dual enrollment HIT program with Anaheim Union High School District that will “create a pathway for HIT students to get some of their coursework done at the high school level, taught by college faculty,” says Gomez. When students come to college, they’ll be on the fast-track to success with a semester of HIT credit under their belts.

Saddleback’s HIT program is also looking to the future. Their newest interdisciplinary offering, the Healthcare Technology Specialist Certificate, “doesn’t even exist anywhere else in the country, as far as I know,” says Mamoon.

The award can be completed in six months or less and prepares students for AHIMA certification and work as a healthcare optimization specialist in an acute care hospital, clinic, physician’s office, long-term care facility, and other healthcare settings.

They say, “It takes a village,” and nowhere is that more true than in Orange County, where community colleges like Saddleback and Cypress are joining forces to provide educational opportunities in high-demand fields like HIT that not only serve the career needs of students but also the workforce needs of regional employers.

For more information about becoming health information technology professional, visit Cypress’s page here and Saddleback’s here.