The Pros and Cons of Becoming a Healthcare Medical Coder
Healthcare medical coders assign clinical codes to information from patient medical records for the purposes of treatment, insurance and billing. Read the following list of pros and cons to decide if you want to become a healthcare medical coder.
|Pros of a Career as a Healthcare Medical Coder|
|Fast-growing career field (22% increase from 2012-2022 for all medical records and health information technicians)*|
|Postsecondary certificate is usually sufficient*|
|Different specialties to choose from (family practice, internal medicine, general surgery)**|
|May have the opportunity to work from home (13% worked at home full-time, according to a survey from 2008)**|
|Cons of a Career as a Healthcare Medical Coder|
|Average salary may be low for entry-level roles (lowest 10% of medical records and health information technicians earned less than $23,000 in 2014)*|
|Most employers require certification, which could mean additional preparation costs*|
|Overtime, weekend and nighttime hours may be mandatory (over one-third of coders worked more than 40 hours each week)**|
|Might have to deal with constant interruptions from additional task assignments (answering phones, scheduling appointments, etc.)**|
|Significant amount of time spent in front of a computer could lead to back strains and wrist injuries***|
Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **American Academy of Professional Coders, ***O*Net Online.
Job Description and Duties
As a healthcare medical coder, you'd be responsible for assigning codes to the diagnoses and treatments made by the doctor. These codes are used for maintaining a patient's medical data and insurance reimbursement, which are entered into a classification system. Each specialty area has different codes that are commonly used, so you might need to be knowledgeable about several classification systems.
Some employers may require you to take on additional tasks besides coding, which could include answering phones and submitting claims. If you're able to land a position that allows you to work from home, you'll have fewer interruptions from these other responsibilities.
Salary and Job Outlook
Medical coders were defined as medical records and health information technicians by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). According to the BLS, career opportunities for medical records and health information technicians were expected to increase by 22% from 2012-2022. Medical coders who have a professional certification and solid computer skills were likely to have the best job prospects.
In 2014, the BLS reported that medical records and health information technologists earned an average salary of approximately $39,000. A 2014 salary survey performed by the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) reported that medical coders with advanced degrees typically received higher wages.
You generally need some postsecondary education to become a healthcare medical coder, typically in the form of a certificate program or an associate's degree program. Associate's degree programs and certificate programs in medical coding and health information technology are available at many technical schools, colleges and universities. Course options might include medical terminology, insurance forms and resolution, medical records management and usage of medical coding manuals. Many programs also prepare you to take various medical coding certification exams.
Since most employers require that you have at least one certification for entry-level roles, you might want check out all of the options available to you before pursuing a healthcare coding career. Each certification has different requirements; some are available to coders who have a high school diploma, while others may require you to complete an associate's degree program. You can usually earn a designation by passing an exam.
The AAPC offers the Certified Professional Coder (CPC) credential, which is frequently required by employers. In addition, AAPC has coding certifications for outpatient hospital coders, payer coders or radiology/cardiovascular coders; in all, AAPC offers twenty specialty coding certifications. The American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) offers the Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT) and the Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA) designations. AHIMA also has certifications for coding associates, general specialists and physician specialists. The Board of Medical Specialty Coding and Compliance, as well as the Professional Association of Healthcare Coding Specialists, offer coding certifications for advanced specialty areas like cardiology, anesthesiology and urology.
Other Useful Skills
Since your responsibilities as a healthcare medical coder include working with doctors, insurance companies, hospitals and other healthcare vendors, you should be able to facilitate good working relationships. Most health records are managed electronically, so you also need to have good computer skills. Here are some skills that can come in handy for healthcare medical coders:
- Able to pay close attention to detail
- Familiarity with medical terminology
- Good communication skills
- Knowledge of current coding rules
Job Postings from Real Employers
According to current job postings, you should be able to interpret medical terminology and discuss it with doctors and other healthcare parties. Most employers want you to have completed an educational program in medical coding. The majority want you to be knowledgeable about the ICD-9 classification system, while others want you to be skilled in usage of additional classification systems as well. Here are some examples of healthcare medical coding jobs posted in March 2012:
- A physicians' group in Pennsylvania is looking for a senior coding analyst with at least 3 years of experience in primary care, surgery, pathology and anesthesiology coding. Applicants must have CPC certification and ideally a bachelor's degree.
- A surgical practice located in Tennessee wants to hire an experienced cardio-thoracic specialist coder. The employee would review and code physician notes for surgical procedures and should hold AAPC or AHIMA coding certification.
- A hospital in Texas is looking for someone who is medical coding certified to work in the legal compliance area. The employee would audit coded records for accuracy and fraud, as well as communicate regulatory changes to a compliance director.
- A Texas medical center advertised for a coder with a minimum of 3 years acute care coding experience. The employer is looking for someone with RHIA, RHIT or physician's office coding specialist certification from AHIMA.
How to Get an Edge in the Field
Many organizations seek coders who've worked in certain healthcare environments, like hospitals, surgical units or physician clinics. Pursuing specialty coding credentials can open the door for more opportunities.
While most medical coding degree and certificate programs train students on the ICD-9 classification system, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is fully implementing the ICD-10 classification system for medical coding by October 2013. You might consider becoming trained in the ICD-10 through a certificate program, which can be found at community colleges, technical schools and some 4-year institutions, so that you're prepared for the transition. However, it is a good idea to first figure out the type of program that will best suit your career goals, since attending school can lead to debt and take a significant amount of time to complete.
Other Careers to Consider
Medical transcriptionists translate voice-recorded notes from doctors and other healthcare staff and document those notes in patient medical records and other reports. To become a medical transcriptionist, you'll probably need to complete an associate's degree program or a certificate program in medical transcription. Certification is optional, and is offered through the Association for Healthcare Documentation Integrity and AHIMA. The BLS reported that opportunities for medical transcriptionists were predicted to increase 6% from 2010-2020. Although job prospects should be decent, the BLS noted that advances in technology will limit the demand for transcriptionists. In 2011, medical transcriptionists earned an annual average income of about $34,000.
Health Information Manager
If you're looking for a higher paying job that still allows you to work with medical records, you might be interested in becoming a health information manager. Health information management professionals use electronic systems to maintain patient records and make sure those records are kept secure. The standard requirement is a bachelor's degree in a health information management program that has been approved by the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education. According to the BLS, jobs for medical and health services managers were expected to grow 22% from 2010-2020. You'll have solid earning potential in this field; the BLS reported that medical and health services managers earned a mean salary of approximately $96,000 in 2011.