Becoming a Healthcare Medical Coder: Job Description & Salary Info

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A healthcare medical coder's mean salary is about $39,000. Is it worth the training and certification requirements? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a healthcare medical coder is right for you.
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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.

Career Information

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.

Education Requirements

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.

Certifications

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 Transcriptionist

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.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Kaplan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Health Informatics
      • Master of Health Information Management
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor: Healthcare Admin
      • BS in Health Information Management
      • Health Information Management
      • Bachelor: Health Science
    Certificate
      • Medical Billing and Coding Certificate
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Herzing University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Technology Management
      • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Public Safety Leadership
      • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Project Management
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor: Health Information Management
    Associate's
      • Associate of Science - Insurance Billing and Coding Specialist
      • Associate: Health Information Management
      • Associate: Healthcare Management
    Certificate
      • Diploma: Medical Office Admin
  • Online Programs Available
    3. George Mason University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Health Administration in Health Systems Management
      • Master of Science in Health Informatics
  • Online Programs Available
    4. The George Washington University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MSHS in Health Care Quality
    Certificate
      • Graduate Certificate in Health Care Quality
  • Online Programs Available
    5. Keiser University

    Program Options

    Bachelor's
      • B.A. - Health Services Admin
    Associate's
      • Associate of Science - Medical Administrative Billing and Coding
      • Associate of Arts - Health Services Admin
  • Online Programs Available
    6. Grand Canyon University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • EdD in Organizational Leadership - Health Care Administration
    Master's
      • MBA: Health Systems Management
      • MS in Health Care Administration
      • Master of Public Administration - Health Care Management
      • MS in Health Care Informatics
      • MS in Nursing: Health Care Informatics
    Bachelor's
      • BS in Health Care Administration
      • BS in Health Sciences: Professional Development & Advanced Patient Care
      • Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Health Science
  • Online Programs Available
    7. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Science in Organizational Leadership - Health Care Administration
  • Campus Locations:
    8. Brightwood College

    Program Options

    Certificate
      • Medical Billing and Coding Certificate
  • Online Programs Available
    9. The University of Scranton

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MBA - Healthcare Management
      • Master of Health Administration
      • Master of Science in Health Informatics
    Certificate
      • Executive Certificate in Health Administration
      • Health Informatics Certificate
  • Online Programs Available
    10. Saint Joseph's University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS - Health Admin
      • MS - Health Admin Informatics

Featured Schools

Kaplan University

  • Master of Health Informatics
  • Bachelor: Healthcare Admin
  • Medical Billing and Coding Certificate

Which subject are you interested in?

Herzing University

  • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Technology Management
  • Bachelor: Health Information Management
  • Associate of Science - Insurance Billing and Coding Specialist
  • Diploma: Medical Office Admin

What is your highest level of education?

George Mason University

  • Master of Health Administration in Health Systems Management
  • Master of Science in Health Informatics

What is your highest level of education?

The George Washington University

  • MSHS in Health Care Quality
  • Graduate Certificate in Health Care Quality

What is your highest level of education?

Keiser University

  • B.A. - Health Services Admin
  • Associate of Science - Medical Administrative Billing and Coding
  • Associate of Arts - Health Services Admin

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Grand Canyon University

  • EdD in Organizational Leadership - Health Care Administration
  • MBA: Health Systems Management
  • BS in Health Care Administration

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Northcentral University

  • Master of Science in Organizational Leadership - Health Care Administration

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Brightwood College

  • Medical Billing and Coding Certificate

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