Secrets of Successful Coders

Secrets of Successful Coders

Apply 14 strategies to help you climb your way to coding success.

There are more than 120,000 certified medical coders in the United States. Some coders define their success by income; some by credentials; some by title; some by their responsibility; and some by many other benchmarks. How did those coders achieve their definition of success? A study and countless interviews uncovered a remarkable pattern of traits among them: These coders strategized their way to the top. Here are 14 “secrets” of successful coders you can use to climb the ladder to success.

No. 1: Visualize Your Goal

A 2010 Princeton study concluded the ideal income for true happiness is $75,000 per household, per year. That poses the question: Do you need to earn six figures? To help answer that, ask yourself:

  • Am I hungry enough to succeed?
  • Does experience or belongings bring me happiness?
  • What work/life balance do I need? (Earning a high salary often means working longer hours.)
  • What income is necessary to achieve the things most important to me?

Write down what you believe will define your success. Studies show writing it down allows you to visualize the goal and increase your odds of reaching that goal.

No. 2: Start (and Do Not Stop)

A problem many of us face when we decide to start something new is that the beginning looks and feels a lot like failure. For example, when you go to the gym for the first time, it might be weeks before you see the results from the exercise you are doing, but you will immediately begin to feel pain in your muscles. It’s important to work through a slow start, and to stick with your conviction to reach your goal.

No. 3: Master What You Have

Many people have all kinds of resources at their disposal, yet don’t take the time to master any of them. Instead of sitting back and complaining, “If only I had …,” focus on the resources to which you already have access, and improvise to overcome your obstacles. Learn to use the tools you have better than anyone imagined possible. If you waste time lamenting on what you don’t have, you’ll miss an important opportunity to master what you do have.

No. 4: Do What You Love

When you love something, you put tremendous energy into it. Someone who does not feel passionate about what they do cannot have the same easy commitment and dedication as someone who does. For many coders, this will happen in an area of specialization, such as coding for particular medical specialty, coding facility versus professional fees, surgical claims, or evaluation and management (E/M) claims. For others, it might be working in management, consulting, or teaching. When you do what you love, you’ll have an enthusiasm that leads to advanced opportunities.

No. 5: Outwork Them

An important shift is happening within our workforce. Approximately 30 percent of us are Millennials (people born between 1985 and 1996). Studies show that younger workers desire more personal time, which makes them less likely to work extended hours. Those of you willing to put in extended time will stand out in a sea of coders who are otherwise committed to family and friends. A powerful work ethic and commitment to career will set you apart from other employees and demonstrate that you mean business.

No. 6: Get Creative

We are often told to “think outside of the box.” Scientists have proven, however, that abstractly thinking about something without some kind of context is exceedingly difficult. Instead, think about things in different boxes. To do this, successful coders ask questions — specifically open-ended questions for which there are no right or wrong answers. For example, instead of asking, “Doctor, how many review of systems are required for a 99202?” ask, “Doctor, how do you feel about documenting E/M services?” This allows for a more creative and customized discussion, which can lead to a more successful outcome.

No. 7: Have a Sense of Urgency

The most successful coders share an extreme sense of urgency. This is a Zen-like conviction to get the job done better than anyone else can. Urgency comes from understanding why you are motivated to do something. What gets you up in the morning? What is your destiny? What will keep you pushing toward your goals no matter what obstacles you face? Look inside yourself and define your “why.” If you do not know what your “why” is, and your “why” is not strong, you will find it difficult to fight for success and win.

No. 8: Develop Business Acumen

Professional coders are smart, hardworking, committed, trustworthy, and resilient. They are committed to their ongoing professionalism, and they constantly hone their subject matter skills. They seek out education to become more assertive and confident. They learn how to self-promote, get a mentor, and effectively network. Successful coders also understand the financials of their business. They understand costs; revenue; working capital; earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA); and working within a budget. They are able to scan their active environment for opportunities and risks affecting their practice’s bottom line. Gain these skills and you’ll climb a couple of rungs up the career ladder.

No. 9: Have Confidence

It’s surprising to me how many coders fall into the trap of self-doubt. Even successful coders reportedly struggle with insecurity. Why? As coders, we must deal with daily criticism, rejection, arrogance, and pressure. Self-talk is incredibly important in dealing with all that negativity.

Repeat after me: You are a person of worth.

Start each day with a positive affirmation that focuses on your strengths. Be optimistic. Relax. And remember that you have purpose. “I’m sorry! I bumped into you when you stepped out in front of me!”

No. 10: Don’t Apologize

“I’m sorry that the CMS compliance rules are so frustrating!”

“I’m so sorry to bug you.”

How many times a day do you say, “I’m sorry?” How many times do you actually mean it? Many of us use the words to soften our message before it leaves our mouth. It’s a word we use out of politeness. But what it actually does is undermine your leadership ability and authority, which is more of a career killer than being disliked. Don’t say, “I am sorry you have to learn these coding rules.” Instead, say, “These rules are difficult, but I can help you make sense of them.”

No. 11: Tolerate Risk

To get ahead, a certain amount of career experimentation is usually necessary. This can be scary. In a phenomenon known as negativity bias (also known as the negativity effect), we tend to overestimate the risk associated with a change and underestimate the overall opportunity. Go ahead and take the leap. Ships may be safest in the harbor, but they are built to be at sea. When the learning curve is straight up, your salary will often follow.

No. 12: Practice Humility

Documentation used for coding can be frustratingly subjective. In an effort to create a reproducible audit result, coders tend to create black and white philosophies that help us in our decision-making. For coders not yet humbled by E/M coding interpretations, for example, it might be difficult to ask for help, or even to ask for forgiveness. Remaining open-minded and collaborative is a common trait among most successful coders. Be the impetus for creating a coding community where we demonstrate more patience, respect, gratitude, humility, and forgiveness with each other.

No. 13: Embrace Change

What you know is less valuable than your ability to learn and adapt. Change is necessary to avoid becoming obsolete. One coder I spoke with earns $225,000 per year. Despite her salary, she told me the one thing that sets her apart is her ability to stay current with change. Rather than looking at change as something to overcome, she chooses to run directly into it.

No. 14: Don’t Wait

Do not wait to be happy. The only thing that we have, for sure, is the current moment. If you do not allow yourself to be happy in the moment you are in, you lose a beautiful gift. Do not put off going to the park with your kids, or trying the newest things that interest you. Do not wait to be happy until you are “successful.” You may already be there.


Stephanie Cecchini, CPC, CEMC, CHISP, is an ICD-10 trainer, a medical coding expert, public speaker, and executive who has been serving the healthcare community for more than 20 years. She is a member of the Salt Lake City, Utah, local chapter.

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Stephanie Cecchini

Stephanie Cecchini

Stephanie L. Cecchini, CPC, CEMC, CHISP, Approved ICD-10 Trainer is VP of Coding Operations at Aviacode. Stephanie is an executive level health care sales and operations expert with significant & broad ambulatory health care business experience with emphasis on multi-specialty physician groups and payers.
Stephanie Cecchini

About Has 9 Posts

Stephanie L. Cecchini, CPC, CEMC, CHISP, Approved ICD-10 Trainer is VP of Coding Operations at Aviacode. Stephanie is an executive level health care sales and operations expert with significant & broad ambulatory health care business experience with emphasis on multi-specialty physician groups and payers.

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