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Becoming a Medical Coding Specialist

What Does a Medical Coding Specialist Do?

medical coding specialist at her desk

Medical coding specialists play an essential role in the business of healthcare. Using alphanumeric diagnosis and procedure codes, they communicate critical information about medical conditions and treatments. Coders translate medical terminology into a standardized format, allowing information to be transmitted accurately and efficiently between healthcare providers and insurance payors.

Correct coding ensures proper recording of a patient’s medical conditions, verification of the provider’s services, and appropriate reimbursement by payors for those services. Additionally, codes are used to monitor public health threats, such as diabetes or measles outbreaks, to track provider performance and to identify potential areas of financial or medical fraud or abuse within the healthcare industry. When coding is done properly, patients, providers, and payors all benefit.

Medical coding specialists rely on their knowledge of anatomy, medical terminology, health conditions, and medications to assign diagnostic and procedural codes for each patient encounter. They must review a patient’s medical record and will, at times, talk to the patient’s healthcare provider or research payor policies to uncover missing information.

Medical coding is a dynamic occupation, as evidenced by the health care community’s implementation of the ICD-10 code set as of October 1, 2015. ICD-10 is more advanced than the decades-old ICD-9 code set that it replaces, and the skills of medical coding specialists will be in greater demand than ever with this transition.

Workplace Details

Medical coding specialists work in a variety of settings, both clinical and non-clinical.

Clinical settings may include:

  • Hospitals
  • Physician offices and group practices
  • Surgery centers
  • Skilled nursing and other long-term care facilities
  • Dental offices
  • Home health agencies
  • Mental health facilities

Some medical coders work outside of the clinical setting at insurance companies, independent billing and coding services, consulting firms, public health organizations, and government agencies.

Most medical coding specialists work full time in a business office environment, spending a majority of their time abstracting clinical data from patient charts. They use a variety of resources to code correctly for services, supplies, and diagnoses, including the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) and Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) codebooks; coding software; websites, such as InnerBody; and medical providers and colleagues.

While working hours for coders usually parallel business hours, some 24-hour facilities may schedule coders for evening or overnight shifts. In recent years, the number of at-home work opportunities, especially among non-clinical employers, has increased; however, these positions generally require several years of proven work experience.

Salary and Job Outlook

State
Average Wage
California
$48840
Texas
$39710
Florida
$40810
Ohio
$39000
New York
$45060

Hover over any state to explore local income and job growth data.

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ALABAMA

Median Salary: 
$29,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $20,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $52,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Birmingham$21,520$31,860$56,310
Huntsville$20,440$33,400$50,270

ALASKA

Median Salary: 
$43,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Anchorage$32,310$41,540$58,830
Fairbanks$40,260$45,870$63,150

ARIZONA

Median Salary: 
$36,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $64,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 310

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Phoenix$26,230$36,970$68,770
Tuscon$22,740$35,610$54,050

ARKANSAS

Median Salary: 
$31,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $20,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $49,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 70

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Little Rock$23,530$36,490$53,910
Fort Smith$17,600$24,070$45,300

CALIFORNIA

Median Salary: 
$43,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 790

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Los Angeles$26,890$43,050$76,080
San Francisco Bay$33,800$53,820$90,660
San Diego$26,120$39,680$74,070
Sacramento$28,500$46,980$78,270

COLORADO

Median Salary: 
$45,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $29,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $71,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 32%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 140

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Denver$32,420$51,630$76,510
Colorado Springs$28,550$39,580$57,010

CONNECTICUT

Median Salary: 
$43,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $65,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Hartford$27,620$40,060$63,630
Bridgeport$27,600$39,910$57,550
New Haven$32,950$51,330$69,140

DELAWARE

Median Salary: 
$38,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $27,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $52,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wilmington$29,100$40,410$57,680
Dover$26,120$31,300$51,540

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

Median Salary: 
$48,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $104,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Washington DC$29,720$46,370$76,730

FLORIDA

Median Salary: 
$36,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $24,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 24%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 440

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Miami$24,370$37,450$66,720
Orlando$27,410$39,890$55,720
Tampa$25,500$37,370$64,290
Jacksonville$24,400$36,810$58,720

GEORGIA

Median Salary: 
$34,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $22,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $57,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 23%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 190

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Atlanta$24,170$36,270$58,950
Augusta$24,630$39,550$55,500

HAWAII

Median Salary: 
$44,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $73,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Honolulu$31,860$48,710$75,020

IDAHO

Median Salary: 
$34,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $49,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 330

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boise$26,330$35,600$49,720
Idaho Falls$20,670$24,780$38,910

ILLINOIS

Median Salary: 
$36,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 260

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Chicago$25,430$39,750$65,950
Rockford$23,430$32,710$53,270

INDIANA

Median Salary: 
$33,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $54,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 170

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Indianapolis$25,110$35,760$60,940
South Bend$23,500$33,920$47,490
Fort Wayne$25,470$36,210$56,490

IOWA

Median Salary: 
$37,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $56,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 70

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Des Moines$25,080$37,730$57,200
Cedar Rapids$25,580$37,240$61,640

KANSAS

Median Salary: 
$33,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $22,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $53,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 90

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wichita$22,310$31,810$51,130
Kansas City$25,930$36,320$56,720

KENTUCKY

Median Salary: 
$34,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $22,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $54,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 27%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 230

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Louisville$22,640$34,900$53,910
Lexington$22,560$34,260$55,760

LOUISIANA

Median Salary: 
$30,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $20,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $47,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 21%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 130

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New Orleans$21,370$31,190$46,110
Baton Rouge$21,230$29,710$51,300
Lafayette$21,500$29,920$45,380

MAINE

Median Salary: 
$35,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $50,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$27,050$36,730$54,430
Lewiston$26,460$37,420$48,380

MARYLAND

Median Salary: 
$46,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $27,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $73,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 270

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Baltimore$27,840$46,040$73,040
Frederick$32,710$53,060$78,700

MASSACHUSETTS

Median Salary: 
$42,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $68,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 170

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boston$31,380$46,700$71,160
Worcester$27,840$41,280$70,750
Springfield$27,290$40,070$59,580

MICHIGAN

Median Salary: 
$36,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $57,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 130

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Detroit$23,190$35,410$56,120
Grand Rapids$25,870$34,950$48,420

MINNESOTA

Median Salary: 
$44,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $60,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 120

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Minneapolis - St. Paul$32,580$44,410$59,800
Rochester$34,950$48,390$64,120

MISSISSIPPI

Median Salary: 
$28,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $18,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $47,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 90

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Jackson$21,400$31,130$50,060
Gulfport$20,390$31,560$54,970

MISSOURI

Median Salary: 
$36,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $24,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $57,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 170

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
St. Louis$25,510$40,760$59,030
Kansas City$25,930$36,320$56,720

MONTANA

Median Salary: 
$31,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $22,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $55,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Billings$22,360$36,670$72,060
Missoula$21,930$30,290$47,200

NEBRASKA

Median Salary: 
$37,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $56,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 60

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Omaha$28,850$38,670$57,250
Lincoln$26,210$35,540$53,030

NEVADA

Median Salary: 
$40,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $63,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 27%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Las Vegas$26,750$42,170$63,440
Reno$26,300$39,180$67,220

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Median Salary: 
$36,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $57,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Manchester$26,610$37,340$50,690
Nashua$26,360$34,830$54,180

NEW JERSEY

Median Salary: 
$58,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $35,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $82,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 60

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Newark$40,940$60,980$94,310
Trenton$28,270$51,060$72,910

NEW MEXICO

Median Salary: 
$30,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $21,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $51,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Albuquerque$21,380$31,450$54,990
Las Cruces$20,180$24,300$42,650

NEW YORK

Median Salary: 
$41,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $63,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 360

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New York City$30,670$46,540$73,580
Buffalo$27,730$41,600$61,190
Rochester$25,800$36,960$54,310
Albany$23,810$32,780$49,630

NORTH CAROLINA

Median Salary: 
$33,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $51,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 220

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Charlotte$23,360$33,380$50,250
Raleigh$23,740$33,250$51,240
Greensboro$22,680$29,930$45,030
Winston - Salem$24,550$39,940$58,100

NORTH DAKOTA

Median Salary: 
$38,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $51,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 23%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Fargo$30,160$42,110$56,970
Bismarck$21,590$34,880$50,160

OHIO

Median Salary: 
$36,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $56,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 280

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cleveland$25,110$36,050$54,250
Columbus$26,370$35,490$51,340
Cincinnati$27,820$39,380$63,150
Dayton$24,980$30,830$48,880

OKLAHOMA

Median Salary: 
$31,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $20,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $51,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 140

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Oklahoma City$20,250$31,890$54,000
Tulsa$23,240$30,860$52,790

OREGON

Median Salary: 
$41,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $60,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 130

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$28,650$43,270$60,660
Salem$26,450$41,150$58,770

PENNSYLVANIA

Median Salary: 
$36,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $55,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 280

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Philadelphia$26,890$37,580$60,380
Pittsburgh$25,650$36,090$52,590
Harrisburg$25,580$38,940$60,630
Allentown$23,510$32,370$49,770

RHODE ISLAND

Median Salary: 
$39,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $58,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 6%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Providence$26,000$38,430$57,980

SOUTH CAROLINA

Median Salary: 
$32,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $22,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $54,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Greenville$22,170$31,140$49,100
Columbia$21,740$35,330$58,950
Charleston$24,430$35,690$53,110

SOUTH DAKOTA

Median Salary: 
$35,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $57,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Rapid City$25,870$36,410$56,970

TENNESSEE

Median Salary: 
$31,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $22,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $52,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 29%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 230

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Nashville$24,790$33,290$58,460
Memphis$21,340$32,560$60,970
Knoxville$21,720$29,960$46,040
Chattanooga$21,280$34,220$62,220

TEXAS

Median Salary: 
$35,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $21,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 30%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 870

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Dallas - Ft. Worth$25,790$39,900$69,550
Houston$21,890$38,500$63,350
San Antonio$21,280$34,220$62,220
Austin$21,180$32,770$57,040

UTAH

Median Salary: 
$35,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $58,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 32%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 90

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Salt Lake City$26,000$36,800$61,360
Ogden$21,850$29,900$48,150

VERMONT

Median Salary: 
$36,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $59,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Burlington$26,900$35,030$57,820

VIRGINIA

Median Salary: 
$36,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $58,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 160

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Virginia Beach$25,610$33,850$48,440
Richmond$24,410$32,060$53,000

WASHINGTON

Median Salary: 
$40,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 190

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Seattle$31,160$44,090$67,590
Spokane$26,580$33,860$51,140

WEST VIRGINIA

Median Salary: 
$32,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $21,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $51,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Huntington$22,340$33,910$57,110
Charleston$21,020$29,350$44,540

WISCONSIN

Median Salary: 
$37,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $59,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 150

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Milwaukee$26,130$39,430$61,400
Madison$28,620$39,880$58,510

WYOMING

Median Salary: 
$36,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $24,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $57,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cheyenne$26,090$41,530$58,890
Casper$25,740$36,610$66,380

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual salary for health information technicians (including medical coding specialists) is $38,040. The lowest paid 10% earn a median $25,070 while the highest paid 10% earn a median $62,840.

Meanwhile, according to Salary.com, the median yearly income of medical coding specialists is $57,501.

In 2013, AAPC estimated that coders who earned their Certified Professional Coder credential receive a median annual salary of $48,593, while those with higher credentials could expect higher earning potential (up to an average of $69,138). Experience, education and certification all increase a medical coder’s earning potential.

Medical coding specialists are in demand. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for medical records and health information technicians is expected to increase by 15% between 2014 and 2024, which is considered much faster than average for all occupations. This increase is partly due to the aging of our population; Americans will be using more and more healthcare services in coming decades. New regulations that require more accountability from healthcare providers are also creating jobs for qualified medical coding specialists.

Opportunities are greatest for candidates with mastery-level credentials (CCS or equivalent), those with several years of work experience and those with expertise in certain medical fields such as interventional radiology.

Medical coding jobs are posted on the websites of hospitals, health systems and other healthcare providers. The AAPC and Health Information Careers websites also list medical coding jobs. Because of the strong employment projections for health information professionals, those with an interest in the business of health care may want to consider a career as a medical coding specialist.

Compare Salaries by City

Los Angeles CA Median Pay

$43050 Per Year

$20.69 Per Hour

New York City NY Median Pay

$46540 Per Year

$22.37 Per Hour

Steps to Become a Medical Coding Specialist

1

Earn your high school diploma.

Most employers look for a minimum of a high school diploma or equivalent. Not only that, but certification requires at least a high school diploma.

2

Determine whether you can train on the job.

In some cases, medical coding specialists may be trained entirely on the job. This can be an option for people who already have a strong background in health care or experience in other areas of health information. Additionally, the US Department of Labor (DOL) includes medical coding in its list of registered apprenticeship programs. An apprenticeship provides paid on-the-job training and academic instruction. For more information, see the US DOL website, or contact a state apprenticeship office or local chapter of the AAPC.

3

Start developing the necessary knowledge base.

Unless your circumstances qualify you to jump right in and train on the job, you will need to bolster your education in specific subjects before becoming a medical coder. While there are no mandatory educational requirements for employment, success as a medical coding specialist depends on a strong knowledge of biology, anatomy, physiology, and medical terminology. Most employers prefer candidates with a postsecondary certificate, associate degree, or at least a year of study beyond high school. O*Net estimates that 21% of health information technicians (including medical coders) have attended some college without earning a degree, while 20% hold an associate’s degree. The annual salary survey conducted by AAPC for 2014 indicates that almost 80% of its members have at least some postsecondary education.

4

Enroll in an approved program.

Programs in medical coding are available through community colleges, continuing education centers and four-year colleges, in both online and traditional formats. The core program takes about a year to complete, although additional supporting coursework in the sciences may be needed. Two professional organizations - the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) and the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) - also offer online certificate programs.

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A growing number of for-profit career schools offer certificate programs and associate degrees in medical coding; however, an investigation by the Government Accountability Office found that some of these programs engage in fraudulent or deceptive practices while charging very high tuition. To ensure a valid and appropriate education, research the program carefully, or consult the list of approved certificate programs on AHIMA’s website.

5

Get certified.

Certification as a medical coding specialist is voluntary, but well worth pursuing. Candidates with AHIMA or AAPC credentials are strongly preferred by employers, and often earn more than non-certified peers. In fact, AAPC estimates that coders holding a Certified Professional Coder (CPC) credential earn 20% more.

In addition to its entry-level CPC credential, AAPC offers certifications that demonstrate coding and/or health care business expertise in various settings and medical specialties. To become fully certified, candidates must, at a minimum, hold a high school diploma or equivalent, pass the certification exam, and have practical coding experience. AAPC specialty credentials require additional knowledge, additional work experience, or both.

AHIMA offers two levels of certification: the entry-level Certified Coding Associate (CCA) and the mastery-level Certified Coding Specialist (CCS). A high school diploma or equivalent is needed for the CCA certificate. Certification as a CCS or CCS-P (CCS Physician-Based) requires one of the following:

  • Completion of a coding training program
  • At least two years of experience in the field
  • CCA certificate and at least one year of experience in the field
  • Coding certificate from another certifying body and at least one year of experience

6

Advance your career.

Experienced medical coding specialists often supervise coding teams or serve as directors of coding at hospitals, health systems, or insurance companies. Due to the growing emphasis on accountability in health care, some organizations are even creating executive-level positions to direct coding strategy and operation. A bachelor’s or advanced degree in health information management or healthcare administration increases a coding specialist’s opportunities for advancement.

Explore Educational Paths

HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA

4 years

There are no education or certification requirements to work as a medical coding specialist. It’s therefore possible to train on the job if you find a willing employer.

That being said, it’s pretty tough to land a medical coding job with no education or credentials. Many people who do so have prior clinical or clerical experience in healthcare.

Some employers offer registered apprenticeships in medical coding. Apprentices receive on-the-job training and education. They’re also paid a salary, which increases with experience.

Coding apprenticeships last about a year. Upon finishing the program, you’ll receive a federal certificate of completion that’s portable anywhere in the country.

CODING CERTIFICATE

6 months-1 year

Medical coding is a highly competitive field. To break in and land better-paying jobs, it helps to have some formal education.

One option is a certificate course, a non-degree program that covers the following subjects:

Medical terminology

Learn vocabulary that will help you describe human anatomy, physiology, and disease processes.

Healthcare reimbursement

Familiarize yourself with the healthcare industry’s payment system, with emphasis on the importance of medical records.

Basic pathophysiology

Study the symptoms, risk factors, and treatments for a variety of diseases and conditions.

Diagnostic and procedural coding

Use the International Classification of Diseases to assign appropriate codes to medical records.

Many coding programs also include a practicum. This involves working as a coder under the supervision of an experienced professional. You can generally count practicum hours toward your experience requirement for certification

There are several types of programs that offer medical coding education:

  • Many community colleges, career colleges, and continuing education centers offer traditional and online certificate programs in coding.
  • The American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) hosts a coding basics certificate course as well as short courses in clinical areas like neoplasms and the circulatory system. Learning is self-paced and can be delivered online or in a traditional classroom setting.
  • The AAPC offers an 80-hour coding certificate program with face-to-face and online learning options. They also offer additional courses in a variety of medical specialties and practice settings (for example, outpatient physician offices).

When deciding which program to attend, be on the look out for degree mills run by for-profit schools. These programs tend to be expensive while providing a low-quality education. You can download a list of approved certificate programs (including many online options) from AHIMA’s website.

ASSOCIATE DEGREE

2 years

There are several good reasons for medical coders to earn an associate degree (or higher) in the field:

  • Many employers prefer to hire coders with associate degrees
  • A two-year degree is also a good foundation if you later wish to earn a bachelor’s or graduate degree.
  • Coders with degrees are more likely to land higher-paying jobs and have greater lifetime earnings.
  • Having a degree may make it easier to land your first job without much experience.

So what should you get your degree in? One option is an AAS in medical coding and billing. However, if you choose this path, proceed with caution. There’s no industry-specific accreditor for this type of program, and many are offered by pricey for-profit schools. Get guidance from working coders or employers in your area before enrolling.

Another option (which is much better-regulated) is to earn a degree in health information management, or HIM. (It’s also called health information technology, or HIT, at some schools.)

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HIM encompasses coding, but it also covers the broader management of health data and medical records. In addition to coding, a HIM degree will allow you to work in areas like quality assurance, auditing, compliance, informatics, and cancer registry.

HIM programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management (CAHIIM). You must graduate from an accredited program to be eligible for AHIMA’s information management certifications.

As a HIM student, expect to take courses in:

Health data management

Learn about electronic medical records, including infrastructure, legal, and privacy issues.

Health information management

Gain the skills and knowledge needed to run an effective health technology program.

ICD coding

Practice coding medical records according to official guidelines with the International Classification of Diseases as your reference.

CPT coding basics

Use the current procedural terminology (CPT) and HPCPS code sets to effectively communicate information about clinical services.

While it’s not required for most coding jobs, you can also earn a bachelor’s or graduate degree in HIM. This can be especially useful if you want to work in a management role or teach at the college level.

One caveat about HIM: since it’s not specific to coding, it might not thoroughly prepare you for your certification exams or your first coding job. Some HIM graduates therefore choose to complete additional coding training (or even a certificate program) before starting their coding careers.

Keys to Success as a Medical Coding Specialist

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Strong analytical skills

Medical coding rules are complex, and sometimes ambiguous.

Rigorous attention to detail

Coding specialists must be able to recognize key details in a patient record in order to apply the appropriate codes, or to know when additional information is needed.

Communication

Coders often act as liaisons between patients, providers, and payors, which requires the ability to communicate effectively, and they must be comfortable working and making decisions independently.

Comfort with technology

Computer skills are essential, especially in light of the increasing use of health informatics software and electronic health records.

Additional Credentials

Certification of medical coders is voluntary but preferred by many employers. AAPC estimates that certified coders earn 20 percent more than uncertified coders in the same setting.

When it comes to certification, there are tons of options. AAPC and AHIMA are the most widely recognized, but other credentials may be useful in certain geographic areas, settings, or specialties.

To decide which (if any) credential is best for you, talk with employers, working coders, or your academic advisor.

In order to earn the following AAPC credentials, you must meet experience and education requirements and pass a test.

  • Certified Professional Coder (CPC) – this is AAPC’s entry level, credential, which requires some work experience to obtain.
  • Apprentice Certified Professional Coder (CPC-A) – this coder has passed the CPC exam but is still working to meet the experience requirement.
  • AAPC also offers certification in four practice settings (outpatient, inpatient, risk-adjustment, payer) and 22 medical specialties.

The American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) offers three coding credentials:

Certified Coding Associate (CCA)

This entry level certification has no specific requirements, but some experience and coursework is recommended.

Certified Coding Specialist (CCS)

An advanced certification most appropriate for hospital-based coders with at least three years of experience.

Certified Coding Specialist, Physician-Based (CCS-P)

Similar to the CCS, but designed for coders in outpatient settings.

AHIMA also offers two credentials for health information management professionals. Candidates must graduate from a CAHIIM-accredited program and pass an exam.

Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT)

Certifies competence in core health information management functions, including medical coding. Candidates must hold an associate degree.

Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA)

Certifies an individual has the knowledge and skills necessary to lead a health information management program and serve as a resource for the organization. Candidates hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Other organizations certify medical coding specialists include:

Practice Management Institute (PMI)

  • Certified Medical Coder (CMC) – designed for experienced physician-based coders

Professional Association of Health Care Coding Specialists (PAHCS)

  • Certified Medical Coding Specialist (CMCS) – awarded without testing to members certified by other coding organizations
  • Also offers credentials in 19 medical specialties

Board of Medical Specialty Coding and Compliance (BMSC)

  • Specialty Coding Professional (SCP) – designed for coders with at least two years of experience. Available in six specialties.
  • Advanced Coding Specialist (ACS) – designed for coders with three to five years of experience, available in seven specialties

Home Care Coding Specialist – Diagnosis (HCS-D)

Karen Ewing, CPC, COBGC (AAPC), MT (ASCP)

Karen Ewing is a medical coding specialist working out of Madison, Wisconsin. She holds certifications as a certified professional coder, certified OB/GYN coder, and medical technologist. Karen has earned undergraduate degrees in biology, medical laboratory technology, and health care management.

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