AAPC certification or AHIMA certification: A Comparison
“What’s better, an AAPC certification or AHIMA certification?”
The answer is: “It depends.”
In this rapidly changing—and increasingly complicated—area of healthcare business, a coding certification is generally a required element for any coder or revenue cycle professional wishing to land a position. However, the kind of position desired appears to define the certification needed. It’s recommended that any potential coder who is seeking either a new position or a career change take the time to research the job requirements and certification expectations in advance to position themselves successfully for the challenges and achievements that careers in healthcare business can provide.
AAPC was founded in 1988 to credential and support physician (professional) coders. Their corporate offices are located in Salt Lake City, Utah, and there are over 175,000 members located worldwide. The organization is uniquely known for its concept of Local Chapters, whereby AAPC members can meet on a citywide or regional basis for networking, education, training, testing, and mentoring. AAPC offers 28 certifications to assist healthcare professionals in achieving a higher standard in their chosen career path.
This year, AHIMA is celebrating its 90th birthday, after being the first to improve the quality of medical records through effective management and the setting of nationwide standards. AHIMA has 52 state associations and over 103,000 members. Originally called the American Association of Medical Record Librarians, they have set the specifications and requirements for healthcare data informatics and analytics, including offering ten certifications in medical records management, professional and facility coding, documentation improvement, and privacy and security.
Membership to AAPC involves an annual fee of $165.00, although student and corporate rates are available. Membership to AHIMA ranges from $79 to $245, depending on the number of credentials held.
Both organizations offer a Fellow status for experienced and tenured professional, and both provide trade journals for their members. AHIMA’s Journal of AHIMA and AAPC’s Healthcare Business Monthly are available in print and online, and offer the opportunity to earn continuing education units (CEUs) by reading and taking tests on the material (for each organization, CEUs requirements vary based on the number of certifications held). The content of each of the two journals is similar, and includes articles on compliance, procedural coding, and career development; however, AHIMA designates a large part of the magazine to medical records and health information management, while AAPC allots magazine more space to Local Chapters, membership, and technical coding information.
Whether you’re a professional-fee coder, or a facility-based coder, continuing education is a big part of either coding organization. Both AAPC and AHIMA provide regional or state workshops, and both have annual national conferences.
Because AHIMA and AAPC credential health care professionals, examinations are held for all certifications. AHIMA’s certification exams are held at designated professional testing sites, and—depending on the certification—have certain educational and cost requirements. AAPC’s certification exams are proctored by local chapters, and also have cost and skill requirements.
Both organizations provide examination assistance: AAPC publishes certification study guides, while AHIMA publishes only exam outlines. Online exam preparation courses are available from both organizations.
A number of coders in the industry hold certifications from both organizations. Amy Bishard, CPC, CPMA, CEMC, CCS got her CCS (Certified Coding Specialist) certification from AHIMA after initially being an AAPC member when she found that some hospital organizations require their coders to hold a CCS certification. She reports that, over time, she’s seen more healthcare organizations recently move towards accepting coders with AAPC certifications—which she felt was an incredibly big deal.
In viewing certification requirements for five hospital coding positions currently posted nationwide, two of the five hospitals accepted only AHIMA certifications for both inpatient and outpatient coding positions. Recently, Indeed (an online job search website) listed 5,655 coding jobs that specified CCS certification only, whereas only 4,388 coding jobs required just the CPC cert.
Recruiters see a similar pattern regarding AAPC certification or AHIMA certification. David Stone, Senior Recruiter for himagine solutions, inc., indicates that most hospitals tend to want the RHIA, RHIT and CCS (AHIMA) certifications. “I am seeing that less,” he indicates, “but some organizations just prefer the AHIMA certified coder.” David feels that this prejudice is unfounded, and believes that given the appropriate training, any certified coder can be successful in most positions. He does note that many organizations hiring for professional coders want the CPC (AAPC) certification, only, and are not interested in hiring a coder with an AHIMA certification. The good news for HCC coders is that the CPC, CRC (AAPC) and CCS-P (AHIMA) are on the list of preferred certifications for employment criteria.
Cathy Morse, CCS, CIC obtained her AAPC certification in inpatient coding after having been AHIMA certified for the majority of her coding career. She believes that certifications from both organizations give her the opportunity for a broader range of information. But, as an inpatient coder, she still feels that the majority of her coding education comes from AHIMA. “AAPC doesn’t offer as much information on inpatient facility coding”, she relays, “and in my current role, I need to focus on keeping up with that material. I really don’t use the pro-fee coding information.”
Amy agrees that each organization, and AAPC certification or AHIMA certification, has its own strengths. “Although I feel that AAPC does a better job with continuing education, in my experience AHIMA does a better job with its approved coder education programs. They’re more thorough and provide a good foundation for coders with required coursework in medical terminology, anatomy & physiology, and pathophysiology.” AAPC does not require this coursework for students studying for the CPC examinations, but strongly recommends it. Recently, Cathy has noted that AHIMA tends to be moving away from providing education and support for facility coders, and is now focusing more on information governance and clinical documentation improvement. It’s another indication of how this changing industry requires HIM and healthcare business organizations to keep up with the times.
Coding and HIM managers also may have their preferences and advice. “I prefer to hire AAPC credentials, hands down for outpatient coders, billers and auditors,” advises Marianne Durling, MHA, RHIA, CDIP, CCS, CPC, CPCO, CIC. She believes the curriculum and exam provided by AAPC does a good job of preparing students and demonstrating their proficiency in this area.
When hiring inpatient coders, auditors, and clinical documentation improvement staff, however, Marianne prefers the AHIMA certifications. She feels that the AHIMA name represents the hospital “gold standard” credential, given the more rigorous skill and experience required to obtain the AHIMA credentials, and the associated coding work expected of those employees. She will consider an AAPC CIC certification for inpatient coding positions; however, the employee would have to demonstrate experience or have had the on-the-job training sufficient to perform the job.
Not all coders work in practice or hospital settings. Colleen Gianatasio, CPC, CPC-P, CPMA, CPC-I, CRC works in the health insurance environment. When hiring coders (typically for risk adjustment or claims auditing), Colleen notes that payers will generally accept credentials from either organization, but she does acknowledge that hospitals in her area still require a CCS for most of their positions. When looking for new employees in her own organization, Colleen looks carefully at any AAPC specialty certifications that a candidate holds, believing that it sets them apart from others by defining their areas of expertise and interest in continuing education.
It is evident that there is a lot of opportunity for healthcare business employees to further their education and experience through both AAPC and AHIMA. When considering AAPC certification or AHIMA certification, it’s important that employees focus on their long-range strategic plans, choose their career paths carefully and consider what direction they wish to take to determine which certifications and affiliations might be the right ones for them.
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AAPC's annual salary survey gives a good understanding of the earning potential within the medical coding profession.
See what actually is going on in the healthcare business job market.