Faculty Spotlight: Christopher Wheat, Program Director of Health Information Management

Christopher Wheat had originally planned on becoming a physician when he entered the University of Chicago as an undergraduate. Fortunately for Northwestern College, he changed his plans. The multi-degreed, multi-awarded Wheat is now Program Director of the college’s new Health Information Management program. How he went from there to here is a fascinating story.

When life pulls you in an unexpected direction

Wheat received his bachelor’s in biological sciences with a specialization in neuroscience from U of C. “At one point, I considered becoming a psychiatrist,” Wheat reflects. “Life, of course, pulled me in a different direction, and in my last year of college I was performing research at the U of C children’s hospital, Wyler’s [now known as Comer Children’s], working in the developmental neurobiology laboratory.” He liked research, so decided to stick with it for another year after graduation. He transferred to UIC’s (University of Illinois at Chicago) Department of Physiology and Biophysics, where he performed research on genetic knockout mice, studying different myosin isoform physiological traits. His contract expired about the time of the shaky political climate in 2004-2006, when many of the sciences were defunded.

How making a necessary change affected plans

“The positions that I normally had and was qualified for with a bachelor’s from the University of Chicago were no longer within my reach,” he says. Research positions seemed to be open only to those who had PhDs. Wheat thought he might need to shift his career goals. “At that point, I wasn’t really interested in medicine per se, but I still loved science,” he says. While searching the Internet for jobs and career alternatives, he saw something intriguing, yet unfamiliar to him: health information technology (HIT). As he learned more about HIT, he followed the path to Northwestern College in 2008.

When starting from scratch is a good thing

Although Wheat was armed with a degree from a prestigious university, he knew it wasn’t enough. “I wanted a firm foundation, a firm footing in a profession instead of just getting a post-graduate certificate,” he says. He signed up for Northwestern College’s associate’s program in HIT. He completed the program, received his RHIT (Registered Health Information Technician) certification and began looking for work. Wheat’s predecessor at NC received a copy of his exam results and was so impressed that he asked him to start teaching new graduates the exam review class. He worked part-time for six months as an adjunct faculty member. “After getting rave reviews,” he says, “I was extended an offer of full-time faculty, full-time instructor.” He decided that if he planned to teach, he should continue his own education.

How adding more credentials improves chances

In the fall of 2014, Wheat began a master’s program in HIM (Health Information Management) at the College of St. Scholastica. During the next two years, he certified in CCS-P (Certified Coding Specialist – Physician-based), CCS (Certified Coding Specialist) and RHIA (Registered Health Information Administrator). “I officially elevated my RHIT certificate, which is the two-year certification to the four-year administrator.” Wheat completed his first master’s last August in Health Information Management, but that wasn’t enough for him. He started a second master’s in Health Informatics that he will complete in August of this year.

When closing one door opens others

As luck would have it, in 2015 Wheat’s predecessor at Northwestern College decided he wanted to get back into the field, and he tendered his resignation. Wheat assumed the role of program director and department chair at that time. In addition to management of the certificate and degree programs, he continues to teach and this quarter is teaching Coding I and the 120-hour practical course for associate’s-degree students; which is the culmination of their two-year academic career. Aside from his Northwestern College commitment, Wheat is active in area professional associations, including CAHIMA (Chicago Area Health Information Management Association) and ILHIMA (Illinois Health Information Management Association). “In 2015, I was awarded the Outstanding New Professional Award by ILHIMA and decided to run for a board seat.,” he says. “I’m currently serving my second year as Director of Education on the board of ILHIMA. I’m finishing up the term this year, and am currently running for President of ILHIMA.”

What he sees as his personal goals

Wheat wants to make the Northwestern College HIM program the premier HIM program of the Midwest. “I put my blood, sweat and tears into constantly improving the curriculum with the help of amazing faculty,” he says. “I really love the students.” With his open-door policy, Wheat encourages students to come to him any time they have issues or questions. “I hate for a student to struggle in silence,” he continues. “I remember when I first went to college at the U of C where our motto literally was ‘where fun comes to die.’ I never want a student to feel that way.” He’s well on his way to achieving his goal, partially due to NC’s many benefits – especially the small class size. “With Northwestern College being a relatively small college, students can get that one-on-one interaction and help that they need.” In addition to the personal approach that is part of classroom instruction, Wheat believes the school’s tutoring options from peers, professionals and instructors; structure of coursework; easily accessible location; and online options are all benefits of the educational programs offered at Northwestern College.

Getting into Health Information Management was a wise decision for Christopher Wheat. If you think Northwestern College’s new bachelor’s program in Health Information Management is right for you, apply now.