Everyone's path to career success looks a little bit different. That statement certainly rings true for Chris Wheat, a master's student in the HIM program at The College of St. Scholastica (CSS).
Wheat received the Illinois Health Information Management Association's (ILHIMA) "Outstanding New Professional" award for 2015. The award "recognizes new members who are within seven years of initial certification for an achievement or contribution to HIM which advances the ideals of [ILHIMA]."
The Chicago native has a background in biology and neuroscience, and he strives daily to live up to the foundation from which he came—one consisting of strong family values, unmatchable work ethic and an insatiable hunger for learning.
You may be surprised to learn that this up and coming HIM professional didn't always have his sights set on the information sector of healthcare. Here is Wheat's award-winning journey.
"There was no pivotal moment that propelled me to where I am now," Wheat divulges, suggesting that a multitude of differing factors were influential to him as a young child.
He was born and raised on the south side of Chicago, and he is the first to state that he's acutely aware of the reputation his childhood neighborhood garners. "I cringe every time I hear someone not from the area describe it as a 'jungle' and full of 'thugs and barbarians'," he confesses.
The truth is, Wheat says, the vast majority of his friends and neighbors were hardworking men and women who worked to provide for their children and improve their community. He cites them as the positive influence that birthed his sense of work ethic and perseverance.
Wheat recalls making frequent trips to The Museum of Science and Industry in Jackson Park, near the shores of Lake Michigan. "It was a short bus ride from my home and I would spend hours looking at the exhibits and reading the displays," he says. From an early age, he knew his future would include science and technology.
In fact, Wheat earned a bachelor's degree in biology with a specialization in neurosciences from the University of Chicago. He went on to conduct several years of research in the university's department of neurobiology, as well at the University of Illinois-Chicago's College of Medicine in the department of physiology and biophysics.
It wasn't until Wheat experienced caring for ill loved ones that he directly witnessed the importance of medical documentation. His interest in HIM then flared up, and the flames haven't simmered since.
Wheat earned an associate of applied sciences in health information technology (HIT) from Northwestern in December 2012. As is customary for HIT hopefuls, he then geared up to take his registered health information technician (RHIT) exam. He prepared extensively for the certification exam, so it wasn't a surprise to him when he passed with flying colors.
"I didn't fear the exam, as I had prepared as much as humanly possible," Wheat says, explaining that a score of 300 out of 400 is required to pass. He scored a 392.
Wheat was like all other newly-qualified RHITs in that he immediately initiated his job search.
During his job hunt he was contacted by the program coordinator at the Northwestern College Bridgeview campus who hoped to recruit Wheat to teach the RHIT Exam Review course as an adjunct instructor.
"I jumped at the opportunity," he says. Many members of Wheat's family are or were educators at some point during their careers. That, in tandem with his experience tutoring other students while pursuing his degree, made teaching feel like the perfect fit. Wheat was extended a faculty position the following fall and has been teaching within the college's HIT department ever since.
But his involvement with the industry didn't stop there.
Wheat has always been proactive in participating in various health information professional associations, namely the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), ILHIMA and the Chicago-Area Health Information Management Association (CAHIMA). He has volunteered to sit on planning committees, helped organize conferences and has embarked upon a personal initiative to increase student and professional membership in CAHIMA.
"I want my students to have the same experience I did and be aware of the countless resources that are available to them as they embark on their careers," he explains.
The decision to pursue a registered health information administrator (RHIA) certification was always a part of Wheat's plan—a goal he could have accomplished with a second certificate. "However, I did not want a certificate," Wheat explains, "I wanted a degree instead. I wanted to make sure I had a solid foundation in the area before attempting to market myself and my skill set to any prospective employer."
He searched accredited programs across the region, and based on the program offerings and the affordable cost, Wheat chose to pursue a master's in HIM at The College of St. Scholastica—a feat he is still in the midst of conquering.
As he looks toward the future, he is unsure of what his career has in store, as he has enjoyed a wide variety of professional experiences within the world of HIM and HIT. From helping audit physician offices in their coding and billing practices to possibly managing an HIM department within a university, Wheat's future is limitless. One thing he loves about the field is the wide variety of possibilities.
But that's not the only thing Wheat loves. "People with many different backgrounds come to HIM and make monumental contributions," he says. "So can you."
Chris Wheat's HIM dreams began in pursuit of his RHIT certification and will see no end once he earns his RHIA. If you're interested in this fast-paced, evolving sector of healthcare but don't know where to start, let us help you decode the credentials and set you on the right path for your HIT and HIM career goals.