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AHIMA President/Chair-Elect Katherine Lusk, MHSM, RHIA, FAHIMA, who will speak at the AHIMA20 General Session today at 4pm CT, is a sought-after speaker on topics related to health information management (HIM) leadership and advocacy.

She has represented AHIMA in Congressional briefings on patient identification and matching (PIM) on Capitol Hill and she serves on several important committees.

Her term as AHIMA president comes at a tumultuous time for the healthcare industry and the profession. When she was first elected to her role last year, she never imagined she’d be part of a team leading the organization through a public health emergency with such a profound impact on the entire healthcare ecosystem.

The COVID-19 pandemic—both the virus and the economic fallout that has ensued—presents an unprecedented number of challenges and opportunities.

“I think the world needs health information professionals now more than they ever have,” says Lusk. “We’re a stabilizing force in a sea of chaos as healthcare reinvents itself. We’re a constant. Standing in the middle, normalizing data. Serving as the patient advocate.”

AHIMA20 conducted a wide-ranging interview with Lusk, exploring her roots in the industry and the role health information professionals must assume in a more interoperable world.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

“I think the world needs health information professionals now more than they ever have.

We’re a stabilizing force in a sea of chaos as healthcare reinvents itself. We’re a constant. Standing in the middle, normalizing data. Serving as the patient advocate.”

—Katherine Lusk, MHSM, RHIA, FAHIMA, AHIMA President/Chair-Elect 

AHIMA20: Have there been moments in your career where you feel you have directly affected a patient’s life for the better—either from a clinical or a financial perspective?

Katherine Lusk: Every day. I feel like that the work that I do improves healthcare delivery and makes life better for everyone. Holding true to those standards, working nationally on patient naming conventions for the pediatric population, and for the adult population, assures that patient information is available when they need it, where they need it, and there’s no delay. Every day of my life I know that I’m making a difference. And it’s through my health information, professional experience, and what I contribute to my organization, to my state, and to my profession.

AHIMA20: In the entire universe of data, nearly a third belongs to healthcare, and that doesn’t include atypical health data, like social determinants and personal wearables. What can HIM professionals do to surface actionable, meaningful data from this ocean of information?

Lusk: What we are doing and what we will continue to do and need to do more of is work on data integrity and ensuring that capture of information is done in an accurate manner, and scrub the data so that it is meaningful when it arrives. And to work with teams like HL7 and standards development so that when it gets transmitted, that it does so in a consistent, meaningful way that can be trusted.

AHIMA20: What do you see as the fertile ground for HIM professionals to really explore next?

Lusk: The time is ripe for an HIM professional to make a concrete difference right now. Clinical documentation integrity, establishing clinical definitions so that people understand what the diagnoses and the problems and the manifestations actually entail and how to accurately classify them so you can train the population.

How you can look at those different nuances for pharmaceutical care and vital signs and blood work and draw it together into a disease process, that’s exactly what a clinical documentation integrity person does with their knowledge base, which is entirely learned from an HIM professional standpoint, and is part of our core competency.

Taking that information and packaging it so that we can identify diagnoses disease processes before they occur, is definitely something that’s ripe for an HIM professional. Where I think that there’s a great potential right now is in the app developer world. There are young, bright, energetic people that are looking to invent the next greatest thing to identify disease processes for diabetes, cystic fibrosis, cancer and chronic conditions. But they need someone like an HIM professional who understands the data and how it connects, and what it means to different disparate audiences to bring it together so that it can be normalized and provide a package that is consumable.

AHIMA20: How do you change that organizational culture so that the HIM team is an early if not first, stakeholder that is turned to kind of grapple with clinical and administrative burdens?

Lusk: We recognize the administrative burdens that an organization has, the clinical burdens and delays in care, and you look for opportunities.

You look for problems and say, “How can I solve that problem and not be afraid?” Just know that you know as much or more than anyone else, and in fact, you probably know more about the record than anyone in the room.

Everyone that’s participating in clinical healthcare knows their piece, but the health information management professional actually knows how to bring all those pieces together. Now we’re having to expand our role into reaching out to the community with those apps and 23andMe and patients and families entering their own information, but really, that’s not so different. It’s just a different discipline. And we have lots of experience with them aggregating different disciplines and their unique vocabularies. We’re just having to adapt a little bit more for these new ones that are coming on board.

AHIMA20: Speaking of yourself, personally, is there anything that informs you through your own experiences that help engender empathy and a lack of judgment about circumstances in people’s lives and understanding what they’re going through and things that may be out of their control, whether it’s medical or socio-economic?

Lusk: I don’t think any of us can be judgmental about what’s going on in life, ‘But for the grace of God go I there,’ is my model. You never do know what is going on in someone’s life and you never do know the stressors that they’re enduring, or the illnesses or the journey that they’ve been on. And so you have to meet them where they are with respect and consideration and understand they’re looking to you to provide help. And the help that you can provide is pivotal, and it may be in the background, but it may be in the foreground, but without that help, they won’t get where they need to go as fast as they need to go.

Sometimes, I just go out and I look around at people and I watch them and I see what’s going on in their lives and I try to be self-aware. I’ll go down to the emergency room and I’ll watch the families that are coming in with their small children and their fathers after work. And our emergency room fills up every single day with working men and women whose child has been sick. The mother has been home with a sick child all day. And the minute that the husband gets home, they’re at the emergency room and they will sit there until their child is cared for. Well, if that does not encourage you to figure out a better way for that child, I don’t know what would.

I just try to open my eyes and look around. I look at people standing around in homeless shelters trying to figure out where their next meal is? And what can we do to help that population so that they get healthcare when they need it. I think that we just have to open our eyes and recognize that there’s lots of opportunity to help lots of different people and not be shy about it.

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