Revenue cycle employees need complex skill sets, yet few have earned any type of certification in their field. This is no longer the case at Whittier, CA-based PIH Health.

“As patient access leaders, it’s important to make these certifications a part of the job requirement,” says Cindy Ovalle, patient access manager of patient registration.

The department’s management, financial counselors, lead representatives, and level II registration representatives are required to earn the Certified Healthcare Access Manager (CHAM) credential, offered by the National Association of Healthcare Access Management (NAHAM). If level I registration representatives earn the credential, they are promoted to level II.

After passing the exam, employees “feel a sense of pride and validation,” Ovalle reports. “It also opens up some new opportunities.” Ovalle says there are four ways patient access leaders can help eliminate barriers to certification:

  • Create study sessions for employees before or after work hours;
  • Allow staff to study for the exam during work hours;
  • Offer a salary increase or job title change if employees become certified;
  • Pay for the cost of the certification exam for certain job positions.

The department covers the cost of the first exam and the renewal costs so staff can remain certified. “Engage executive leadership to support this additional cost,” Ovalle suggests.

Leaders offer handouts, quizzes, and study sessions to help employees prepare for the exam. Outside of work hours, the studying continues. “Staff study together on their own time, with groups of employees who will be taking the exam,” Ovalle says.

One year ago, only 10 revenue cycle employees were certified at Grand Rapids, MI-based Spectrum Health. “Now, it’s up to 111 and growing rapidly,” says Amy Assenmacher, senior vice president of revenue cycle.

The change came from the top. “The CFO challenged all of us as leaders to get our certifications and set the example,” says Assenmacher, who earned her Certified Healthcare Financial Professional (CHFP) and Certified Revenue Cycle Representative (CRCR) credentials, both offered by the Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA).

Leaders at Spectrum Health, regardless of their role or level, are encouraged to obtain any one of the six certifications offered by HFMA. These cover healthcare finance, revenue cycle, and analytics. “Regardless of whether you are a front-line registrar or a senior director setting strategy for the access services department, the HFMA certifications are the same,” Assenmacher says.

The health system’s CFO told leaders if they earned certifications within two months, he would take them to lunch. Newly certified revenue cycle leaders made the same offer to their staff.

Although it is strongly encouraged, certification is not required, at least not yet. Patient access leaders have discussed making it mandatory. They also are looking at tying certification to advancement by making it a requirement in the department’s career ladder.

For individual employees, the prestige of listing a credential after their names is important in itself. “I definitely see an increased confidence,” Assenmacher observes.

Previously, if employees wanted a credential, they had to pay hundreds of dollars to take the exam. Spectrum Health decided to eliminate this barrier by investing in an agreement with HFMA that includes certification for all the health system’s employees. “All 1,500 employees in revenue cycle have been strongly encouraged to consider pursuing these certifications,” Assenmacher says.

There remains a time commitment — about eight hours studying time and 90 minutes sitting for the exam. To make this easier, revenue cycle educators offer a lunch-and-learn series on how to study for the exam and why the credential is so important. “Usually, someone who has successfully passed the exam shares a testimonial of sorts,” Assenmacher says.

Some employees are worried they will flunk, especially those who have not taken an exam in years. “They want to know the process,” she says. “When anyone hears the word ‘test,’ there is a normal anxiety that arises.”

One employee sheepishly admitted she failed the test on the first try. Assenmacher told her, “It’s just proof to me that you are committed and that you really want to do this. It’s not an easy test, and it may take you several times, and that’s OK.”

As soon as they are certified, many staff add digital badges to their LinkedIn profiles. “It demonstrates to others, outside your area, that you have a commitment to becoming an expert in your field,” Assenmacher notes.

Each revenue cycle department is engaged in a competition to see who can certify the most employees by the end of this year. “They are also helping each other and sharing tips and tricks,” Assenmacher adds. “There’s an awesome momentum around it.” Staff who already obtained the credential usually advise their colleagues to break up the material in bite-size amounts.

For some enthusiastic employees, certification is just the first step. Some have found other ways to make a name for themselves in the revenue cycle field by signing up at a local committee or attending a national conference. “It’s a gateway,” Assenmacher says.