Healthy Dose of Data

by Tom Speicher, writer/video editor Photos by Speicher.

Approaching his 50th birthday, Joseph Travagline sought a career boost. An eclectic information technology background and associate degree led to an impressive position at a renowned institution, but Travagline wanted more. 

More education. More responsibility. More influence.

Just a few years out of high school, Lyndsey Diehl hoped to broaden her career prospects. She boasted an associate degree and the qualifications for plenty of promising job opportunities, but Diehl wanted more.

More education. More responsibility. More influence. 

The two students from different generations received the same wish thanks to their tireless work ethic and the bachelor’s degree in health information management from Pennsylvania College of Technology.

Joseph Travagline had a healthy career in IT before seeking work in health care. With a degree in health information management – earned via distance learning in 2015 – he leads a team that supports 7,500 Johns Hopkins medical staff members.

Travagline completed his studies without leaving his Baltimore home or treasured employer.  The distance-learning degree aided his climb to director of operations for the Centralized Credentialing Office at Johns Hopkins Health System. Johns Hopkins is annually ranked as one of the best hospitals in the country by U.S. News & World Report.

“Hopkins likes to see people who push forward and get degrees,” Travagline said with a rapid-fire delivery befitting his Type-A personality. “If I wanted to advance and become a director, a manager, or even higher, I needed to really put my foot down and get that bachelor’s degree.”

The credentialing office supports more than 7,500 medical staff members across all Johns Hopkins hospitals and community physicians. In essence, Travagline and his staff of 17 serve as information traffic cops as they validate the qualifications of the medical staff and standardize various types of data.  

“We are the first gate to patient safety,” he said.

Diehl’s credentials earned her the sole trauma data quality specialist position at the Pennsylvania Trauma Systems Foundation in Mechanicsburg. The foundation is the accrediting body for the approximately 40 trauma centers located at hospitals throughout the state. 

The 2013 graduate employs software to ensure the integrity and consistency of patient data generated by the trauma centers, which provide specialized care for those suffering from serious bodily injuries. On-site audits help her determine if the centers are abstracting information appropriately. Diehl is like a pleasant, low-key detective searching for informational clues to improve the flow of data. 

64The number of Penn College students seeking an associate degree in health information technology during the Spring 2017 semester.

26The number of Penn College students seeking a bachelor’s degree in health information management during the Spring 2017 semester.

$37,110The median pay in 2015 for medical records and health information technicians, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

$94,500The median pay in 2015 for medical and health services managers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

191,066The number of open health information management positions in the United States, according to the NACElink Network Extended Job Search.

“It’s exciting when you find something in the data,” she said with a warm smile. “As a person who can’t cut a patient open or who doesn’t want to touch a patient, I feel like I’m still involved in the health care field and making a difference.”

Those realities attracted Daniel K. Christopher to health information long before Diehl was born. The department head for health information majors has been devoted to the field for 37 years as a director of medical records, consultant and teacher. He wrote the curriculum for Penn College’s accredited associate and baccalaureate degrees in health information technology and health information management. 

“It’s a very good career option in the health care arena where you’re not doing direct patient care, but you’re definitely contributing to the quality of care,” he said. “Health information provides the backbone for a lot of the decision making regarding patients and documents the outcomes of their care.”

“As a person who can’t cut a patient open, I feel like I’m still involved in the health care field and making a difference.”

The American Health Information Management Association defines health information as “data related to a person’s medical history, including symptoms, diagnoses, procedures and outcomes.” Such data are collected and analyzed both for individual patient treatment and research based on demographics.  

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, employment in the field is expected to grow at least 15 percent through 2024, which is “much faster than the average for all occupations.” Entities that have any connection to health care are potential employers. 

“You don’t need to cut anybody. You don’t need to touch anybody,” Travagline said. “You just need to care.”

And you don’t need to be a math whiz. 

“Many parts of our profession are not heavy math-oriented except for one of the newer areas called data analytics,” Christopher said. “The keys for success are attention to detail and mastering the skill set you learn in the program.”

Travagline followed a winding path to the Penn College health information program. Growing up five minutes outside of Baltimore in the blue-collar town of Dundalk, the sports-minded teenager was given two choices by his father: college or the military. Intrigued by the newly introduced personal computer, Travagline attended tech school for a year, which led to a series of jobs working for PC manufacturers.

Those adventures included installing the first desktop PCs (complete with 10-megabyte hard disks) for NASA Mission Control in Houston and later working with engineers building new computers in Silicon Valley. 

“I went to a conference in the 1980s where Bill Gates gave a speech,” Travagline remembered. “He said, ‘All computers will have Windows on them.’ Everyone laughed and we were like, ‘What’s Windows?’”

Travagline discovered Windows firsthand, thanks to subsequent roles as a PC technician and network engineer at the Environmental Protection Agency and in private industry. Eventually, his nomadic employment history left a craving for career stability in a field offering advancement opportunities. Travagline targeted health care and Johns Hopkins.

“The opportunities in health care will last a lifetime,” he said. “Johns Hopkins is an awesome institution. It’s part of Baltimore, and it’s part of my heritage. Anywhere you go in the world and you say, ‘Johns Hopkins,’ everyone knows it.”

An associate degree in health care administration/management from a community college helped him become application project leader for Johns Hopkins Healthcare in 2012. In that role, Travagline integrated information systems and ensured they aligned with organizational goals. In other words, he was the Duke of Data. 

“Health care is data-driven,” he said. “To be able to understand data is one of the most interesting areas to me. As they say, ‘Data is king.’”

Travagline began considering a bachelor’s degree about a year into his new job. Ironically, he discovered his future school while helping his daughter search for colleges. During a college fair, he grabbed a Penn College brochure to add to his daughter’s growing collection. The information transformed Travagline from conscientious dad to college-bound student. Included on the college’s long list of “degrees that work” was the health information management degree offered via distance learning.

“I started to research the school and talked to some other folks who I know in the industry,” Travagline recalled. “They said, ‘Yes, Penn College has a very good program, and it’s part of the Penn State family.’”  

A visit to campus confirmed that assessment.

“Everyone I met was very personable and eager to help and answered questions,” he said. “From there, I was sold. I didn’t want to do a school that was not brick and mortar. I found Penn College to be the perfect fit for me.” 

It was for Diehl, as well. Only her initial choice of study was radiography. 

Lyndsey Diehl, who received a bachelor’s degree in health information management online in 2013, secured the position of trauma data quality specialist with the Pennsylvania Trauma Systems Foundation.

A talented high school volleyball player and swimmer from Mechanicsburg, Diehl sought a health care career, but she knew her “weak stomach” wouldn’t tolerate the blood that can result from direct patient access. Her mother suggested radiography. Internet research and one trip to Penn College solidified not only her major but her school. 

“The campus just spoke to me. I don’t know any other way to put it,” she said. “It was a great visit from every aspect. It felt comfortable and the right place to be.”

The Dean’s List student quickly discovered that the clinical setting wasn’t for her. Wary of causing pain, Diehl felt uncomfortable when physically manipulating patients for X-rays. The career dilemma frustrated her; however, Diehl knew the solution didn’t mean deserting Penn College. She loved the school and was on her way to becoming a three-time team captain for women’s volleyball. 

Rather than a new college, Diehl needed a fresh major. A long, productive conversation with Erin S. Shultz, the college’s coordinator of career development, directed Diehl to a foreign field for her: health information. 

“It sounded interesting. I could still be in health care, have no patient care and still make a difference,” Diehl said. “I did my research and found a ton of job opportunities, and the salary looked pretty good, too. I was like, ‘I’m going to give it a shot and go with it.’”

According to her college professor, Diehl’s route to health information is common. 

“The profession has always struggled with recognition as a career because there are no TV shows about health information professionals,” Christopher said. “People just aren’t aware of it until they stumble into it. They are at a school; their first option doesn’t pan out, and they are looking for something else in health care. Those who find it are satisfied with the career and what it offers. They enjoy the program and go out and get good jobs.”

That’s true for both associate- and baccalaureate-degree graduates.

“For the most part, the associate-degree grad will go into more technically oriented jobs like coding or handling requests for patient information. They are in more of the technical, ‘worker bee’ type positions,” Christopher said. “The person with the bachelor’s degree typically will have higher-end technical positions and be supervisors or managers.”

The majority of students also seek industry credentials to maximize their career prospects: Registered Health Information Technician for graduates with an associate degree and Registered Health Information Administrator for those with a bachelor’s. Diehl and Travagline boast both credentials, passing the exams on their first attempts.

Stethescope

How health information is used

  • Trauma registrars track the incidence of traumatic injuries, such as gunshot wounds and motor-vehicle accidents, which results in valuable public-safety data.
  • Health information managers protect the privacy of a patient’s health record by enforcing federal HIPAA guidelines and other privacy laws.
  • Health information personnel assign diagnosis and procedure codes to ensure health care providers can receive payment for the services they provide.
  • Health information professionals work with patient data to ensure the meaningful use of electronic health record technology.
  • A quality database of health information helps researchers note a high incidence of a particular type of cancer in a geographic region.

– Michele Budnovich, instructor of health information technology

Coursework and industry experience enabled through required internships prepare students for those tests. Diehl’s internship with the Pennsylvania Cancer Registry provided a bonus: a full-time position after she graduated from the associate-degree major.  As a registry technician and later a registry specialist, she monitored cancer information supplied by reporting facilities to certify compliance with the registry’s data definitions. 

While working full time for the registry, Diehl, like Travagline, completed her bachelor’s degree via distance learning before moving on to the Pennsylvania Trauma Systems Foundation.

“I’m a very determined person, so when I had assignments, I did them,” she said. “I think as long as you do what you’re supposed to do and you make time for it, it’s just as beneficial as being on campus.” 

Travagline had to juggle his full-time job at Johns Hopkins and roles as a husband and father with his quest for a baccalaureate degree. He believes Penn College made the experience the best possible.

“I had taken online courses previously where you couldn’t even get an email back from the teacher. Penn College was not like that. The teachers were very professional and responsive,” he said. “From the first class to the last class, I was very, very impressed. The teachers have professional experience in the industry, and that makes all the difference in the world. You can’t get what you need to work in the industry out of a book all the time.”

Travagline and Diehl continue to draw upon their Penn College background in advancing their education. 
Diehl recently earned the Certified Specialist in Trauma Registries credential and is preparing for the Clinical Health Data Analyst credential exam. “Penn College definitely gave me the health information framework, and I was very confident coming out of school that I could do what I wanted to do with that framework,” she said. 

In May, Travagline obtained his master’s in health care management from Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School. “I quickly found that I was farther ahead than some of the other students who hadn’t had a really strong bachelor’s program,” he said.

Both Penn College graduates are bullish on their future and the future of health information technology. 

“There are always going to be jobs, and new jobs will be created because we are an evolving profession,” Diehl said.

“It’s a career that will never go away. We will always need the data and systems behind health care,” Travagline said. “You can make it what you want.”

Like more education, more influence and more responsibility.  ■