What It Takes to Be a Consultant

Your journey to becoming a successful consultant has already begun.

Often, while working with providers, coders, and billers throughout the United States, I am asked, “How can I do what you do?” Although there’s no simple answer, the journey to consultant begins at the start of your career.
The Journey to Consultant Begins with Preparation
Consider the following qualities and skill set that can help you become a successful consultant and incorporate them into your current position.
Develop an inquisitive style. Discover answers for yourself, rather than relying solely on others. As you become a life-long learner, you build your knowledgebase one question and answer at a time, and eventually become a subject matter expert in your own right.
Develop coding relationships. Network with coders of various specialties. One of the easiest ways to do this is to become involved in your local AAPC chapter. As you offer assistance in chapter leadership, you learn from your peers and have an opportunity to share your knowledge to benefit others. Amazing things are accomplished when coders work together in a local chapter. It’s a rewarding endeavor in so many ways. By investing in others, you’re investing in your own success, as well.
Become a person of excellence. Your work is truly a self-portrait. Develop your reputation over time: one encounter at a time, one task at a time, one job at a time. What you do today affects your tomorrow.
Practice attentive listening. This is a finely crafted art that can be challenging in the noisy, fast-paced, information-intensive world of healthcare and coding.  A consultant must be a good listener, not afraid to probe for details and ask questions, to understand what the client wants and needs.
Be reliable and trustworthy. Become the person that others look to for reliable answers. As a consultant, you’ll hear and see things that you cannot repeat. Clients need to trust that you’ll keep information confidential. Your reputation depends on it.
Learn to find answers in the details. Most coders are naturally analytical and detail-oriented. Being a consultant requires you to analyze complex and varied data, identify trends, and draw meaningful conclusions for the client. Develop these skills as you work in your current role by paying attention to details.
Become a good investigator. As you research various questions (for instance, on the Internet), create a favorites folder of your go-to places for answers (e.g., CMS, CDC, OIG, NIH, NCQA, AMA, etc.) and a source document file. Learn to navigate skillfully. This is labor intensive at first, but your efficiency at finding answers will improve with time.
Be solution oriented. Being a consultant begins with understanding the issues—the problems or challenges—and ends with providing your client with meaningful solutions that work. Your service has value because you are able to be objective, identify problems, and offer solutions.
Hone your communication skills. A consultant must be able to communicate complex concepts clearly and succinctly, both verbally and in writing. One of the easiest ways to develop these skills is to volunteer to present for your local chapter, sharing your unique knowledge and experience. Others want to hear what you have learned. Speaking in front of your peers is a wonderful, free, growth opportunity, and helps to establish you as a leader and as a resource.
If you don’t know certain skills necessary for a presentation (i.e., Microsoft PowerPoint), use it as an opportunity to learn. If necessary, take a class or brush up on your writing or public speaking skills. Over time, your presentation skills will improve, and you’ll learn to create interesting and informative presentations and the art of communicating in front of an audience, easily weaving your personality into your delivery.
Become credentialed in your areas of interest or experience. As you progress in your career, earn specialty certifications to highlight your skills and expertise.
Be honest. As you share your knowledge, it’s essential for you to be honest. Speak only on what you know to be true and factual. Recognize your limits and never “wing it.” It’s perfectly acceptable to tell a client or an audience that you don’t know something, but you’ll find out and let them know. Then, do it. That kind of response demonstrates integrity and breeds confidence. And because you have developed relationships among your peers, you’ll have a whole team of knowledgeable and experienced professionals from which to obtain answers to those questions.
Work on your delivery. Sometimes you have to relay information that is difficult for the client to hear. Be humble, yet authoritative, commanding a presence of expertise, while remaining approachable and teachable. Be ready to cite your sources.
Overcome Your Fears
Years ago, if someone had asked me, “What are your greatest fears?” my answer would have been, “Flying and public speaking.” When I first began speaking, I was terrified. My stomach filled with butterflies. But I came prepared, excited about my topic (coding), confident in my knowledge, and comfortable with my presentation. When I stood to speak, those butterflies flew in formation. It was incredibly rewarding and I felt like I had climbed Mt. Everest! I encourage you to consider the view from the top of the mountain, set realistic goals, and start preparing for your future today.
In my current role, I fly around the country working with providers, coders, and billers consulting and speaking, finding much fulfillment in “making sense of medical coding.” What you do today will shape your tomorrow. If I can do it, you can, too!

Bio: Linda R. Farrington, CPC, CPMA, CPC-I, has over 30 years of experience in healthcare, specializing in CVT surgery and risk adjustment. She has served as an AAPC local chapter president, secretary, and education officer. Farrington has written articles; presented audio conferences, workshops, and trainings; and served on the AAPC National Advisory Board from 2007-2011. She is a consultant for Optum and is the owner/instructor of Medisense, teaching medical coding courses in Colorado Springs.
John Verhovshek
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John Verhovshek, MA, CPC, is a contributing editor at AAPC. He has been covering medical coding and billing, healthcare policy, and the business of medicine since 1999. He is an alumnus of York College of Pennsylvania and Clemson University.

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