Thursday, December 1, 2016

REMOTE CONTROL: How to be a Successful HIM Telecommuter

By Deanna Rasch, RHIT

The Health Information Management Technology field is a rapidly-changing one, offering a wide range of career opportunities. Whether a position calls for EHR integration and management, supporting the revenue cycle, release of information, clinical documentation improvement,  working with health information exchanges, or quality improvement, opportunities for growth and advancement are plentiful.

One of the great benefits of the HIMT field is how many jobs offer the flexibility to work remotely. A recent (October 2016) search on yielded just under 1000 open remote-specific positions for HIM workers.

Telecommuting is on the rise, not just in HIM. According to a Gallup poll published in August 2015, 37% of the American workforce is working remotely at least part of the time. Statistics from show that telecommuting has increased 103% since 2005. With property costs rising and space at a premium, companies are recognizing the benefit of letting their workforce go home to work; the potential savings, on average, are estimated at approximately $11,000 per employee per year.

While some organizations allow new hires to work from home starting day one, bear in mind that many companies have a tiered process for sending employees home to work. Erin, a full-time employee at a national health insurance company, has been telecommuting for eight years and had to meet specific requirements first. “I worked in the office for several years. Our company began offering telework to employees who met certain criteria such as years of service, excellent performance reviews, proven track record, and type of position. I had to attest that my work space met company guidelines for security (a separate room with a designated desk and a door that locks.) For the first year, I was permitted to work from home two days per week, and when that was successful I was offered the opportunity to telework full time.”

So your company decides to let you work from home coding in your pajamas. How can you ensure success when telecommuting?

Assess yourself

Working from home should enable us to work distraction-free, resulting in a significant increase in productivity. However, reality can be much different from perception, and it necessitates asking some hard questions. Are you self-disciplined and independent enough to be productive without a supervisor nearby? Are you easily distracted by chores or bill paying? Are you able to resist the siren song of Facebook and Netflix?

Elizabeth Wintour, RHIT, CCA, an inpatient coder at the Cleveland Clinic, suggests a few strategies for overcoming common distractions. “I get my lunch ready the night before or the morning before I start my shift. That allows me to relax and enjoy my lunch break without getting distracted by the mess in the kitchen or the dishes I'm creating.” Another potential interruption is the house phone. “I turn off the ringer of my home phone during working hours because that line is not used for work purposes. This helps me stay focused on work and not get distracted by home life while I'm in my home office.”

Family, friends or neighbors can also pose a threat to productivity. The perception that you “aren’t really working” can result in phone calls, texts or other interruptions. While I don’t mind accepting FedEx packages for my neighbor, I’m very protective of my work hours. I don’t answer the phone or front door during the day, I only respond to texts during breaks, and I don’t turn on the television for any reason. I set a timer when my kids get home from school; we catch up on how their respective days went, and when the timer goes off, they know to get a snack and start on homework so Mom can finish working.

Bethany, a Coding Specialist II at a large healthcare system in central Ohio, agrees. “There are always so many things to be done around the house that it can be easy to become distracted if you don't make yourself keep working. However, my department has specific productivity requirements for the number of charts coded per hour, and if those standards aren't met, telecommuting privileges can be revoked. If I find myself veering off from the standard, remembering that helps light a fire under me to stop daydreaming and get back to work.”

Assess your skills

Working from home means that you won’t be able to drop by the Help Desk to ask for assistance with a PC issue. Being computer-savvy helps when you only have yourself available for troubleshooting. Yes, you can call or email to open a trouble ticket, but if you can fix the problem yourself, you can save time and improve efficiency. You don’t want to appear unproductive or miss an important webinar because you are having router issues or Outlook is wonky on your new laptop. If you don’t feel that your skills are up to snuff, consider taking a computer class at your local library or community college.

Plan your workspace

My next-door neighbor works from home, and he likes to say that all he needs is his laptop and his recliner. For those of us in the HIM field, our requirements for a functional home office are a bit more stringent. For example, HIPAA; will you be accessing any PHI? If so, do you have the ability to secure documentation properly? While some users may have employer-provided workstations and VPN, others use their own Internet connections and personal computers to access secure company portals. And while electronic safeguards are important, so are physical safeguards; locking fire safes can be used for hard drive backups and securing tokens when not in use.

Bethany shared her company’s approach. Computers displaying PHI must be in a private, quiet area of the house with little traffic. Also, my organization provides the computers and software used for coding, so the software programs and the computers lock at certain intervals if left unattended for a while, same as in-house computers.”

Workstation configuration is important from a health standpoint. According to Dr. David Agus, leading cancer specialist and personal physician of the late Steve Jobs, sitting at a desk for five or more hours is equivalent to smoking an entire pack of cigarettes. Current data and research shows that we need to stand up and move around for four to five minutes every 30 minutes.

“Don’t forget to stretch your legs every once in a while,” says Wintour. “A number of my coworkers commented that they found themselves sitting more throughout the day in their home offices than in a traditional office.  Maybe it's because coworkers are a phone call or email away rather than a quick walk away.” Using a workstation that can be raised or lowered can help with fatigue, and facilitates movement throughout the day.

Wintour suggests another alternative: “I use the sleep-timer on my clock radio to remind me to get up at least once every hour. I turn the radio on with the sleep-timer set for 60 minutes. When the radio shuts off, I know it's time to get up and move and hit the sleep-timer for another 60 minutes.”

Professional approach

While one of the great benefits of working from home is the ability to roll out of bed and get straight to work, consider whether or not this will impact your approach your job. Not to mention, what if you realize you have a WebEx meeting? “I wear business dress to my desk. Not necessarily suit or stockings, but an outfit I wouldn’t be ashamed to video chat in,” says Julia Welch, CCS, a remote abstractor for the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula.

I've worked from home for the last five years and my dressing rule includes a shower/hair/makeup routine just like as if I was going to the office. I'm generally dressed in jeans and a sweater, but look more than presentable to answer the door or a video call as they pop up. There is nothing worse for my motivation than looking into the mirror at 2:00 in the afternoon and looking like you just rolled out of bed,” says Erin Wu, a healthcare consultant from New York.


Set a schedule and stick with it as much as possible. While telecommuting offers a great deal of flexibility and autonomy, maintaining a schedule is helpful both for your organization and for you. Coworkers and managers who receive quick responses to calls or emails during regular work hours have greater confidence that you’re getting work done. On a personal level, it helps to clock out both physically and mentally when your work day is done. “When it’s quitting time, I have to quit. I’m the kind of person who gets immersed in a project and pretty soon it’s eight PM, ten PM, midnight. If I don’t stick to my work schedule, I just keep going,” says Jody Gilbert, a senior editor for Tech Pro Research who has been telecommuting for 20 years.

Wintour agrees. "An effective way to separate work life from home life is to keep only work-related materials in my home office so that I can close the door and have no reason to go in there when I’m done for the day."

Erin has a similar approach. "When teleworking, it is easy to lose track of time and work longer hours than you would in an office." She suggests setting specific start and stop times and sticking with them.

How do you develop your schedule? Think realistically about what will work, and if you will need to be available for others. Are you a coder and can work whatever eight-hour shift you like within a 24-hour period? Or will you be interacting with others in other time zones for web meetings or phone calls? If so, those requirements need to be addressed when planning your schedule. If you don’t ever seem to be around when needed, the perception of ‘unavailability’ can have a negative impact.


Staying in the loop can be hard, particularly if only one or two people in a department are working off-site or if telecommuting is a new venture for a company. Some organizations offer an internal instant messaging application so that employees can stay in quick contact. Other organizations may offer employee portals with a knowledge base or board where questions may be asked and answered. Not having the ability to pop over to a coworker’s cube can sometimes make things more difficult. “When I have a quick question, it would be nice to have a coworker whom I could just physically turn to for immediate feedback. Sure I can send an e-mail, or make a phone call, or set up a Lync meeting to share my screen, but sometimes even those extra steps create longer delays for what should be a quick question,” says Wintour.

“Each separate coding workgroup (e.g., emergency room coders, ambulatory surgery coders, inpatient coders, etc.) holds a virtual Webex meeting once a month. This gets us all together in one place (metaphorically speaking) at the same time and lets us actually speak to each other out loud. We use this as a time to catch up on coding updates, bring up any issues we're having, or get questions answered,” Bethany says.

At Erin’s, company, “we stay connected with Instant Messenger, email, and the telephone during the day as well as bi-weekly team meetings via phone. Many of us have one-on-one calls with our manager to connect. We also have in-person team-building events a couple times per year.”

Lack of communication can inhibit productivity and adaptability. In a field where change is constant, staying in the loop is extremely important.  “I think our industry's rules, laws, coding and regulations change very quickly. It can be challenging to keep up with all of those changes and to adjust workflows and processes to quickly and effectively adhere to them,” says Erin.

For people who are more social, telework can represent a drastic change. “If you’re the kind of person who needs constant interaction with others, or if you thrive in a busy office environment, telecommuting may not be the best choice for you,” suggests Gilbert.
“Working from home can be lonely, and I do miss the social aspect of the workplace,” says Erin, but she agrees that the benefits of working from home outweigh any negatives.

Invest in Your Own Success

The benefits of working from home are numerous; less investment in business attire, savings on transportation costs, greater scheduling flexibility, and a thirty-second commute from the office to the kitchen. If you are a good fit, and your company is willing to send you home to work, don’t squander the opportunity. Taking telecommuting seriously by being a motivated, dedicated worker demonstrates gratitude for the opportunity and a personal investment in the process. By setting a good example as a successful teleworker, you ensure that companies are more likely to expand their remote work program, which will ultimately have a positive impact on the HIM industry.

As Erin says, “The work/life balance that is achieved with telework is invaluable! Teleworking has allowed me to simultaneously feel accomplished as an employee and as a mother.”


About the Author

Deanna Rasch is an RHIT and a part-time coding analyst. When not working from home, she can be found knitting, reading, playing board games, fishing, kayaking or target shooting with her family at their property near Mohican State Park.


Works Cited

Gibbons, Jacqui. "Six Ways Your Desk Job Is Wrecking Your Health: This Is Why Sitting All Day Is as Bad for Health as Smoking." High50. N.p., 16 July 2016. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.

Jones, Jeffrey M. "In U.S., Telecommuting for Work Climbs to 37%." N.p., 19 Aug. 2015. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.

Lee, Kevan. "Healthiest Way to Work: Standing vs. Sitting and Everything Between." Https:// N.p., 04 Sept. 2014. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.

Lister, Kate. "Federal Telework – Return on Taxpayer Investment." Global Workplace Analytics. N.p., Jan. 2016. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.

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