The History of Health Unit Coordinators

The History of Health Unit Coordinators

The last week of August is nationally recognized as a time to celebrate Health Unit Coordinators, the professionals in the health care industry who manage a facility’s administrative operations and make everyone’s lives easier.

A health unit coordinator is typically an entry-level health care professional who serves as the first line of communication in a medical unit. These professionals work diligently to keep doctors, nurses, and other medical staff organized and on top of their workflow. In essence, they do all the little things that keep a unit running, and if they’re doing a great job, you may never even notice.

That’s why it’s so important for hospital staff to take the time to thank their health unit coordinators on Health Unit Coordinators Day (August 23). Below, we explore the role of the health unit coordinator and the rich history of this important profession.

What Does a Health Unit Coordinator Do?

Health unit coordinators typically work under the supervision of physicians or nurses to manage a variety of tasks, including:

  • Setting up charts for admittance
  • Data entry
  • Ordering lab tests and x-rays
  • Transcribing physician orders
  • Communicating with nursing staff
  • Using order entry systems
  • Creating and maintaining patient records
  • Keeping the unit in compliance with health and facility policies
  • Keeping track of shifts and schedules

While a college degree is not always required to work as a health unit coordinator, many hospitals prefer candidates who hold a certificate from a health unit coordinator training program. These programs educate aspiring health unit coordinators in the appropriate medical terminology, transcription skills, and other important things they’ll need to know to perform their jobs effectively.

The History of Health Unit Coordinators

The National Association of Health Unit Coordinators (NAHUC) was founded in 1980, but the role of health unit coordinator originated nearly 40 years earlier during World War II.  

World War II: The Changing Role of Nurses

Before World War II, hospitals were staffed with physicians, specialists, and nurses, in addition to operational workers such as cooks and janitors. It was also the responsibility of nurses to manage the medical desks and handle the phones.

As more doctors began to work on the frontlines of the war, nurses started to assume more medical duties, such as drawing blood and taking condition reports, leaving behind some non-medical administrative tasks.

As the war ended, new hospitals with state of the art facilities began to be erected. When staffing these hospitals, administrators started hiring what was referred to as a “ward clerk.” Their duties were the tasks formerly given to nurses: ordering supplies, managing timesheets, and preparing reports. Through the years, ward clerks also began taking on tasks that were less clerical, and their titles reflected these new responsibilities, referring to them as “unit clerks” or “unit secretaries.”

The 1960s and ’70s: The Rise of the ‘Station Coordinator’

During the 1960s, a need for more educational programs grew. In August 1966, a woman named Ruth Stryker conducted a study of the functions of the head nurse, ward secretary, and ward manager. These findings were published in “Nurse Outlook” and helped launch a hospital station program in Minnesota, and later, other vocational education systems. Stryker came up with the title of “station coordinator” for this role, as these professionals coordinated a great number of activities and responsibilities for their hospitals.

Eleven years later, Myrna LaFleur, who went on to found the NAHUC, conducted a national survey and discovered there were 52 formal health unit coordinator programs in the United States. She also found that there was an interest among these coordinators to form their own national association.

1980: Health Unit Coordinators Organize Nationally

After a state association for unit coordinators was formed in Arizona, LaFleur saw the need for a national association. She dug up the responses from her 1977 survey and began contacting the respondents who stated they were interested in forming their own national association. LaFleur started making calls and invited them to meet in Phoenix in August of 1980 to discuss their plans to form a national association. 

On August 23, 1980, those coordinators met and wrote out a constitution and declared themselves the National Association of Health Unit Clerks/Coordinators, Inc. Ever since then, August 23 has been recognized as Health Unit Coordinators Day.

Health Unit Coordinators Day Timeline

Since its inception, the holiday of Health Unit Coordinators Day — and the importance of health unit coordinators in the health care industry — has grown tremendously. Here’s a brief timeline of the achievements and expanded recognition of health unit coordinators in America.

June 1982

The first-ever NAHUC annual national convention was held in San Antonio, Texas in June 1982. Members discussed, wrote, and adopted the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice for health unit coordinators. Amongst their biggest concerns were education and recognition as a health care profession.

May 1983

In May of 1983, the NAHUC established a Certification Board, and the first National Certification Examination was granted.

1991

By the end of 1991, the NAHUC had successfully fought for and won the right to acknowledge the health unit coordinator as a health care profession. At this time, there were over 15,000 certified health unit coordinators, and the Education Board and the Accreditation Board were formed as subsidiary boards of the NAHUC to work toward program accreditation. These Boards also established an official listing of unit coordinator competencies.

2017

Health Unit Coordinators Day extends to the entire week, now known as Health Unit Coordinators Recognition Week. The fourth week of August (August 23 to 29) is celebrated each year in the health care community to recognize and celebrate the important role of health unit coordinators.

2020

With the COVID-19 pandemic still impacting health care systems across the United States and globally, health unit coordinators need your support now more than ever. If you’re a doctor, nurse, or health care administrator, take the week of August 23 to make your health unit coordinators feel special and show your appreciation for all their hard work.