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How to Become a Medical Coder in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Medical coders are responsible for looking after medical records and health information. Medical coding is an important job, and these specialists are responsible for managing billing, patient information, and other highly sensitive data.

Medical billing and coding requires specialist training because it’s a job that needs attention to detail and a good understanding of medical terminology. Coding specialists earn an average of $44,090 per year, which makes the job reasonably well paid compared to other non-degree-requiring positions.

If you’d like to become a medical billing specialist, you’ll need to complete a training course and earn a certification. Once you’re qualified, you have the option of working in an office or becoming a remote medical coder. Most people who do this job work full-time and the demand for medical billing and coding specialists is set to increase by about 8% between 2019 and 2029, which is around twice the growth rate of the wider jobs market.

What does a medical coder do?

Medical coders have an important role to play in the health industry. They help doctors, nurses and specialists stay on top of the huge amounts of information that is generated and processed by medical professionals every day.

It’s vital that medical information is recorded accurately, and this kind of detail-oriented work is ideal for people who want to work in a healthcare-related position, but who don’t want to deal directly with patients.

The rapid increase in the use of electronic health records means that medical coders are very much in demand, as are people who understand billing and medical terminology. Coders keep the whole healthcare system moving smoothly, and need a good understanding of things like the International Classification of Diseases, the Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System, and Current Procedural Terminology. Remembering these, and keeping your skills current, can be hard work.

What is a medical coder?

Medical coders are the people who are responsible for taking the information about healthcare diagnoses, procedures, and the medical services a patient has received and converting that information into a universal code for ease of record-keeping, and for billing purposes.

There are many different kinds of medical codes in use today. The goal of these codes is to standardize the way that information is recorded so that it can be communicated easily between medical facilities. By converting records into alpha-numeric codes, it’s possible for different health care providers to understand each other’s records.

Another benefit of medical coding is that it helps researchers and public health experts keep track of trends. It’s much easier to parse standardized codes than to try to interpret freeform text records.

Insurance companies also rely on medical coding for billing, because the codes make it clear exactly what treatments or services a patient was provided with during their visit to a health care professional. Health care providers within a specific insurance network will all use standardized coding to make it easier for the insurance company to process claims.

What does a medical coder do?

A medical coder is responsible for reviewing notes taken by medical professionals and converting those notes into ICD-10, CPT, or other codes as required. Some coders work in general health care practices and will deal with general notes, having a broad understanding of common medical conditions and treatments. Others work in more specialized clinics and will have an in-depth knowledge of more obscure procedures and conditions relating to that type of clinic.

Coders read a patient’s notes, assign the right codes, and type out the codes into patient charts. Depending on the complexity of the cases they deal with, each chart could take some time to complete, and the coder may need to do some detailed research.

What does the average day of a medical coder look like?

A medical biller or coder will spend most of their day sitting in front of a computer. They’ll be given a stack of patient notes and billing sheets to work through, and will have to extract information from each sheet, and enter it into the billing system.

The coder will do some basic data entry, typing out the physician’s name, the date of the procedure, the patient name, and other general information, then reading the notes to determine what codes to assign to the consultation.

Coders may memorize some common procedures and diagnoses, but they cannot be expected to remember everything, so they’ll spend a lot of time consulting books and databases to look up the codes for more complex or unusual cases. They may also network with their peers to seek advice, and there are many discussion forums, periodicals, and even conferences where coders can network and help each other understand the nuances of different cases.

Coding is a complex job, and as new medical procedures, drugs and conditions appear, so do new codes. This means a health information technician should invest in continuing education to ensure they always have the most up-to-date knowledge.

Required training to become a medical coder

It’s possible to become a medical coder by taking a postsecondary training course and pursuing certification. There’s no need to have a bachelor’s degree or even an associate’s degree in order to work as a coding specialist. The training for the job is incredibly focused and specialized, but if you earn a recognized professional credential it will help you get a job at a clinic or health care facility.

Some would-be coders choose to pursue an associate’s degree in health administration or a bachelor’s degree, as well as taking the certification, simply because this opens up opportunities to work in other areas of health care and makes them more appealing to employers. One option is to complete the associate’s degree and a coding certification, then work as a coder while topping up the associate’s degree to a bachelor’s.

What sort of prerequisites should you have before pursuing a career as a medical coder?

There are no specific prerequisites required for someone who wants to work as a medical coder. Certification programs are usually open enrollment, so you can simply pay a fee, sign up and study the course.

You’ll be more likely to pass the certifications if you have a good understanding of anatomy and physiology, and also have strong literacy and numeracy skills. It helps if you’re organized, have good attention to detail, and are able to concentrate and read complex texts that contain a lot of jargon.

Would-be coding specialists who are considering studying a healthcare administration or health information management degree will need to have a GED or high school diploma and may be expected to have a certain minimum GPA to be accepted onto their chosen degree program.

Entry requirements for degrees vary between institutions. Many community colleges and technical schools have open enrollment or are willing to consider motivated students from varying academic backgrounds. More prestigious institutions may set stricter requirements for their GPAs.

What sort of academic requirements will you have to fulfill in order to be a medical coder?

The main requirement for medical coders is that they have an understanding of basic coding in ICD-10, and other common systems. Any medical coding qualification must be awarded via an accredited body such as the American Health Informatics Management Association (AHIMA), the American Association of Professional Coders, or the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management (CAHIIM).

There are several different certifications and credentials that a would-be coder can work towards, depending on the type of coding they want to do. The most basic qualification is the Certified Coding Associate credential, which is awarded by the AHIMA.

The AHIMA recommends that coders have six months of experience in the field, or complete an AHIMA-approved coding education course before they take the CCA test. the test is multiple-choice and assesses a coder’s skills across physician-based and hospital-based scenarios. Passing the CCA will give an entry-level coder a head start when it comes to finding their first job in the field.

The CAHIIM offers a qualification similar to the CCA, called the Registered Health Information Technician credential. This certification is an entry-level qualification that does not require the coder to have any work experience but does expect applicants to have the equivalent of an associate-level education in health information management.

The RHIT examination is a 3.5-hour multiple-choice examination that covers all aspects of coding and medical record management. Once you’ve passed that examination, you can call yourself a certified medical coder.

Once a coder has earned an entry-level qualification and is fluid in the ICD-10, they can pursue other certifications and expand their knowledge by learning more specialist coding systems such as ASC coding for Ambulatory Surgery Centers, or the Certified Cardiology Coder (CCC) qualification.

Coding standards are updated regularly, and there’s a lot of terminology for coders to stay up-to-date with. Once a coder is certified, they’ll need to attend regular refresher courses so that they can keep their skills current. It’s possible to qualify as an entry-level coder and get a medical coding certificate in less than a year, but that does not mean there’s only a year of study required to do the job. Coders are committing to a lifetime of learning.

How to advance in a career as a medical coder

Medical billing and coding is an in-demand profession, and there are many promotion opportunities once someone is certified and has some experience. To get an entry-level job, you’ll need to have an understanding of the ICD-10 system, but beyond that, you’ll need to engage in further study to unlock opportunities for promotion or specialization.

What options do you have if you wish to advance from a medical coder position?

The most common progression opportunities for medical coders are to move into more specialized positions that rely on other coding systems or moving into management positions.

Specialization options for coders can include studying for the Certified Tumor Registrar (CTR) specialty, the Certified Interventional Radiology Cardiovascular Coder certification (CIRCC), or certificates in other areas such as pediatrics, anesthesia, pain management, or obstetrics.

Focusing on a specialization can offer a modest pay increase above the basic earnings of a general coder, but moving into management positions offers the greatest potential to increase your earning potential. To unlock management jobs, however, you will need to have both coding experience and some experience of managing personnel, and it helps if you have a degree-level education on top of your coding qualifications.

There are dozens of coding standards to learn for different specializations, and each of those standards may have its own certification and examinations to take. It’s common for coders to pick two or three specializations, learn them, and use those certifications as a part of their continuing education credits, along with courses in revenue cycles and billing, ambulatory care coding, and other commonly-encountered coding areas.

What job opportunities can you qualify for if you have had experience as a medical coder?

Some examples of higher-level jobs that can build on a coding skillset include:

  • Hospital coding manager
  • Advanced coding specialty jobs
  • Medical and health services manager
  • Clinical manager
  • Health information manager

Management positions often expect a baccalaureate level qualification in health informatics management or health administration. The field is becoming increasingly competitive and it’s common for applicants to possess a master’s degree in those areas.

This means career coders who want to move up should consider pursuing a degree part-time while they’re working as entry-level coders. This offers multiple benefits, since their studies may count towards continuing professional development and will help them access better jobs in the future. Even coders who do not pursue management jobs may find they can negotiate higher salaries due to their increased accuracy and productivity if they have a master’s level education.

Management positions require good communication skills, patience, people skills, and the ability to work with people from many different departments. These are skills that can be developed in a variety of environments, not just in health care. So it makes sense for students to take any chance they can get to earn some real-world work experience, whether that’s working in a store, volunteering at a small outreach center, or taking part in student union activities.

What else should you know about advancing in a medical coding career?

Billing and coding are challenging positions in their own right, but management positions add new challenges. Hospital coding managers do some coding themselves, but they are also responsible for other aspects of the department, such as:

  • Hiring and training new coders
  • Evaluating the performance of the team
  • Managing day-to-day workflows
  • Monitoring compliance

This means coding managers must have good interpersonal skills, strong organization skills, and a robust knowledge of medical coding.

Those who move into health information management will have the chance to work with other databases and manage a variety of technology implementations at their hospital or clinic. They’ll be responsible for the security and accuracy of all patient records, and will maintain databases, manage access control lists, and make sure that databases are complete, properly backed up, and maintained.

When someone moves out of a pure coding position and into one of these more management-focused positions, they will have the chance to enjoy higher earnings and a variety of employment benefits, but the nature of the work they do may change. A manager will spend more time dealing with people and overseeing the big picture of the department, rather than focusing on coding individual cases. This may appeal to some people, but those who enjoy coding for the detailed nature of the work and the ability to work alone, focusing on one case at a time, may find management more challenging.

The beauty of the healthcare industry is that there are lots of jobs to choose from and if one type of job doesn’t appeal you can always pursue another. Some coders even change career entirely, pursuing nursing jobs and moving into nursing informatics, for example. The exposure to medicine gained from coding can be a head start into a variety of other jobs at a healthcare facility.

Where to get medical coding certifications

Would-be medical billing or coding specialists can study for their certifications from a variety of institutions. It’s important that any medical coding course a person pursues is accredited, especially if the course is supposed to prepare a person for an entry-level certification.

Many community colleges and technical colleges across the United States run medical billing and coding courses that can prepare you to take examines and earn your medical coding certification.

What are the top online schools you can attend to get a medical coding certification?

Some of the best online schools that offer medical coding or billing courses include:

  • Northland Community and Technical College
  • Central Texas College
  • Keiser University – Fort Lauderdale
  • Highland Community College
  • Minnesota State College Southeast

Keiser University – Fort Lauderdale stands out as being one of the best because it has a graduation rate of 65%, putting it far above average for online courses, where dropout rates are often very high.

Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls, MN, is another institution with an impressive graduation rate, with 42% of students successfully completing the course. Minnesota State College Southeast has a graduation rate of 41%.

Central Texas College and Highland Community college are worthy of inclusion on the list of the best colleges for medical billing and coding certifications because of the comparatively low cost of the courses. While entry into the programs is not competitive, and dropout rates are higher, the low barrier to entry makes these courses an appealing option for people who wish to study medical coding part-time, self-funding their studies, and investing in their future.

Where can you study a medical coding certification on-campus in the United States?

If you’d like to study a medical coding program on-campus in the united states, you’ll find a variety of options are available. While many programs are online-only, some institutions offer a choice of hybrid or even fully on-campus learning.

Medical insurance, billing, and coding courses are available at:

in general, on-campus courses cost more than their online counterparts. However, the trade-off is that students get face-to-face support, and benefit from the increased motivation and accountability that comes with studying in a group environment.

Many students find that synchronous delivery and having someone to talk to about their studies makes it easier for them to complete the course, and helps them overcome any challenges or self-doubt they may feel as examination time approaches.

What sort of financial aid can you qualify for if you are going for a medical coding certification?

Most medical coding programs are not full associate’s degrees or bachelor’s degrees, but they can still be quite expensive. Fees of around $100 per credit for in-state students, or up to $400 per credit for out-of-state students are not uncommon.

Fortunately, it’s possible to obtain financial aid to cover some or all of the cost of a medical coding certification. State and federal financial aid should be the first port of call for low-income students who are looking for help to cover the cost of their studies, but there are other options available.

Private scholarships and grants are made available by many organizations. Grants and scholarships do not have to be paid back and are offered to students based on financial need and academic merit.

Some organizations offering grants or scholarships for medical billing or coding students include:

American Health Information Management Association

The AHIMA Merit Scholarship Fund is open to students who are aiming to earn an associate’s degree-level or better qualification in health information management or a related field. Students must be enrolled in at least six credit hours of courses, have at least six credit hours remaining, and have an overall minimum GPA of 3.5. The scholarship offers between $1,000 and $2,500 toward the cost of studies, and is open to AHIMA members.

Association of Schools of Allied Health Professions

The ASAHP runs a Scholarship of Excellence program. This scholarship fund offers $1,000 for students who are enrolled on a degree-level course, and who have completed at least one term so far. It is open to students studying at ASAHPS schools, and anyone who wishes to apply for the scholarship must be nominated by their school.

Health Information and Management Systems Society (Arizona)

A $5,000 regional scholarship is available for Arizona residents who are members of HIMSS. The program is open to students who are studying at an accredited school in Arizona, either part-time or full-time, on any level of a degree program.

George Health Information Management Association (Georgia)

Georgia residents who are studying for an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree in a health information-related subject and who have a GPA of 3.0 or better may be eligible for a scholarship from the GHIMA. Applicants must be members of the GHIMA, and be able to demonstrate involvement in healthcare-related extracurricular activities. Grant amounts vary from year to year.

In addition to the scholarships listed above, students should also look at scholarships or bursary opportunities run by the college or university they are considering studying at. Many institutions offer scholarships for students who are on a low income or offer flexible payment plans that might make the cost of studying more accessible.

Federal student aid and low-interest student loans may also be helpful. Medical coders have the potential to earn a salary that’s above the national average, which means any investment in the career should pay off in the long term.

Those who go on to work in health informatics management can earn an average of $50,010, and the top ten percent of earners in the field have a salary of more than $73,370.

While there are other professions in health care with greater earning potential than this, most of those professions require a master’s degree or a doctoral-level qualification. Coding and health informatics offers the potential for reasonable earnings with only a postsecondary certification or an associate’s degree, giving people the chance to start recouping the investment in their education quite quickly.

Some medical coders start working at a hospital or clinic, and then fund further undergraduate studies from their salaries, earning a bachelor’s degree part-time.

Student loan forgiveness programs are sometimes available for healthcare professionals who work at nonprofit hospitals. These programs are more commonly offered to nurses, but other healthcare workers may be eligible, depending on the courses they studied and the positions they now work in.

If you’re a low-income undergraduate who is considering studying a medical billing, coding, or informatics-related course, be sure to start applying for student support and finance options as early as possible. In addition, put aside some money to cover application fees and enrollment fees, because you may find that you’re faced with some expenses before your course begins and your funding comes through.

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