Pros and Cons of a Medicare Coder Career
Medicare coders translate medical information such as diagnoses and treatment options into numerical codes for use within the Medicare system. Check out the pros and cons to see if becoming a Medicare coder is right for you:
|Pros of a Medicare Coder Career|
|High growth field (22% increase between 2012 and 2022)*|
|Minimum education requirements (typically less than one year)*|
|No patient interaction*|
|Jobs available in non-hospital settings*|
|Potential to work part-time (15% worked part-time in 2010)*|
|Cons of a Medicare Coder Career|
|Majority of work hours spent in front of a computer*|
|Lower-than-average pay (median annual wage of about $36,000)*|
|Need to keep up with advances in technology*|
|Education and experience requirements for certification (preferred by many employers)*|
|May need to work night and/or weekend hours*|
Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Essential Career Info
Job Description and Duties
Medical coders are also sometimes called health information technicians and medical records technicians. In order to keep accurate medical records and properly bill insurance companies, these professionals convert diagnoses, lab tests, procedures and other medical data into codes. Medicare coders specialize within the Medicare system, using their knowledge of the government's policies and standardized coding system. Though Medicare coders don't interact with patients, they do contact healthcare staff to confirm or clarify information in patients' records. Though many coders work in hospitals or other acute-care facilities, some work for doctors' offices, nursing homes or medical laboratories.
Following federal mandates that healthcare facilities switch to using electronic records, medical coders' work focuses around the computer terminal. You should be comfortable with typing and using a computer as well as learning new software as healthcare technology advances. Attention to detail is important in this role, not only in providing accurate records and codes but also in keeping patients' records secure.
Salary and Job Prospects
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in May 2014 that medical records and health information technicians, a group that includes Medicare coders, made a median annual wage of $35,900 (www.bls.gov). The BLS projected a 22% increase in employment for medical records and health information technicians in the decade from 2012-2022. As the population ages, there will be an increased demand for health services and the staff to organize and code those services. The BLS also mentions that coders with computer skills may have the best job prospects as the healthcare industry updates its technology.
Education and Training Requirements
You can get started in the medical coding field by completing a certificate program, which you can earn in a year or less. The American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) approves coding certificate programs offered by vocational schools and technical colleges. Also called health information technology programs, coding programs typically include courses in anatomy, medical terminology, pharmacology, insurance procedures and coding systems. You could also enroll in an associate's degree program in health information management or health information technology.
What Employers Are Looking For
The BLS notes that most employers prefer to hire coders with professional certifications, and many of the job postings open in April 2012 mentioned certification. Read these summaries of some of those postings to see who employers wanted to hire:
- A healthcare company in Florida was looking to hire a certified medical coder with 2-3 years of experience, including work in Medicare risk adjustment. Candidate should have strong oral communication skills and be able to work under general supervision.
- A consulting company in Illinois was searching for a certified professional coder - Medicare coverage specialist with five years of experience working in an administrative or business capacity in a hospital or research facility. Associate's degree was preferred.
- A home healthcare service company in Texas wanted to hire a certified coder with at least one year of experience, particularly in Medicare OASIS coding.
How to Stand Out in the Field
Though you are not legally required to be certified to work as a medical coder, certification is the standard in the field. AHIMA offers various levels of certification, beginning with the Certified Coding Associate (CCA) designation. You are eligible to sit for the CCA exam with a high school diploma, but AHIMA recommends some coding experience or training beforehand. AHIMA also offers the Registered Health Information Technician designation for graduates of associate's degree programs in health information. The American Academy of Professional Coders offers certifications in general coding for physicians' offices, hospitals and insurance companies and specialized coding in areas like cardiology, surgery and pediatrics.
Keep up with Coding Developments
The various coding systems include the federal International Classification of Diseases Manual - Clinical Modification (ICD-9-CM), the Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System (HCPCS) and the American Medical Association's Current Procedural Terminology Manual (CPT). There are constant developments in medical terminology and coding. For instance, in 2012, a new version, ICD-10, was set to be released. Your certification may require maintenance with continuing education credits that are designed to keep you abreast of changes in the field. A proactive attitude toward learning about recent developments may demonstrate your willingness to adapt in an ever-changing field.
Other Careers to Consider
If you have good typing and computer skills but aren't sure you want to learn the medical coding systems, consider a career as a medical transcriptionist. Medical transcriptionists listen to recordings made by doctors and medical staff and type a transcript of the dictation for use in medical records. They attend 1-year certificate or 2-year associate's degree programs. The BLS reported in May 2011 that medical transcriptionists made a median annual wage of $33,000. Job growth in this field expected to rise only six percent between 2010 and 2020.
If you like the idea of performing office tasks in a medical setting but also want to perform some clinical tasks, consider becoming a medical assistant. One of the fastest growing occupations at a projected 31% increase through 2020, medical assisting requires one or two years of training. The BLS reported in May 2011 that medical assistants made a median annual wage of $29,000.