What Is the CPC Exam?

Advancing Your Career in Medical Coding: CPC® Certification

Employers value individuals who demonstrate proficiency and continued commitment to excellence through professional certification. For those seeking a career in medical coding, a Certified Professional Coder (CPC) credential from AAPC is the gold standard, nationally recognized by employers, physician societies, and government organizations.

Experienced, proficient medical coders are in demand. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for certified medical coders will increase 8% percent through the year 2029. Becoming a CPC helps you to prepare for a career in a growing, dynamic healthcare industry, and improves your chances of getting hired in a competitive job market.

Prepare for certification and a career in CPC Exam

Validate your knowledge, skills, and expertise with CPC Exam certification

CPC Examination

As an initial step to earning a CPC credential, you must take and pass the CPC examination. The exam assesses and confirms your ability to correctly apply CPT®, ICD-10-CM, and HCPCS Level II codes used to report and bill professional medical services. In passing the exam, you'll demonstrate:

  • Proficiency across a range of services, including evaluation and management (E/M), anesthesia, surgery, radiology, pathology, and medicine
  • Knowledge of medical coding guidelines and regulations and proper modifier applications
  • Mastery of anatomy, physiology, and medical terminology necessary to code diagnoses and services
  • An understanding of how to integrate medical coding and payment policy changes into reimbursement processes.

Scope of Certification

The CPC examination consists of 150 multiple-choice questions and tests your knowledge of a broad range of coding-related topics.

Questions based on the CPT® code book include:

  • Surgical procedures performed on the integumentary system (10 questions)
  • Surgical procedures performed on the musculoskeletal system (10 questions)
  • Surgical procedures performed on the respiratory system, cardiovascular system, hemic and lymphatic systems, and the mediastinum and diaphragm (10 questions)
  • Surgical procedures performed on the digestive system (10 questions)
  • Surgical procedures performed on the urinary system, male and female reproductive systems (including maternity and delivery), and endocrine system (10 questions)
  • Surgical procedures performed on the nervous system (10 questions)
  • E/M services (10 questions)
  • Anesthesia, including time reporting and qualifying circumstances (8 questions)
  • Radiology (10 questions)
  • Laboratory and pathology (10 questions)
  • Medicine (10 questions)

The exam also covers relevant coding topics beyond the CPT® code book, including:

  • Medical terminology (8 questions)
  • Anatomy (8 questions)
  • ICD-10-CM code application, and the ICD-10-CM Official Guidelines for Coding and Reporting (10 questions)
  • HCPCS Level II, including modifiers (5 questions)
  • Coding guidelines, including modifier use (6 questions)
  • Compliance and regulatory, including Medicare Parts A, B, C, and D; place of service (POS) codes; National Correct Coding Initiative (NCCI) edits; HIPAA, and other regulations (5 questions).

What It Takes to Pass

To pass the CPC exam, you must answer at least 70 percent of the questions correctly. Your time to complete the exam is limited to five hours, 40 minutes. It is an "open book" test; however, you may use only approved code books.

These include:

  • American Medical Association (AMA) standard or professional edition CPT® code books;
  • Your choice of ICD-10-CM code books
  • Your choice of HCPCS Level II code books
  • Any officially published errata for the above

Because each code set is updated annually, it is essential that you use the current year's code books when taking the certification exam. In your approved coding resources, you may highlight, underline, and make brief notations necessary for day-to-day coding. Tabs may be inserted, taped, pasted, glued, or stapled in the books, as long as the tabs are used to earmark a page with words or numbers, not to supplement information in the book. Manual calculators and highlighters are also allowed. You may not consult any other resources during the test. Electronic devices with an on/off switch (cell phones, smart phones, tablets, etc.) are not allowed into the examination room.

The exam is proctored and held at predetermined dates and locations. The exam cost is $425 ($380 for AAPC students). You must register and pay for the exam at least three weeks in advance of taking it. If you do not pass the exam on your first attempt, you may take the exam a second time at no cost, within a year. You may take the exam as many times as necessary to pass.

Starting Your Journey to Become a CPC

Proof of education or experience isn't necessary to sit for the CPC exam; however, due to the extensive nature of the exam, and depending on your level of coding experience prior to attempting certification, AAPC recommends several steps to prepare yourself.

STEP 1: Master Medical Terminology and Anatomy

A CPC needs a strong understanding of medical terminology and anatomy. AAPC offers online medical terminology and anatomy courses that are ideal for students who have never studied these topics, or for those who want to refresh or improve their knowledge. The courses introduce you to medical terminology and human anatomy used in coding and reimbursement. The classes include module tests and a final exam, so you can measure and verify your comprehension.

STEP 2: Complete a CPC Exam Preparation Course

To pass the CPC exam, and to prepare yourself for a medical coding career in an outpatient physician office, you must master key coding concepts and learn to apply fundamental medical coding skills. AAPC offers an 80-hour online course that covers CPT®, HCPCS Level II, and ICD-10-CM coding, and assures you have a broad knowledge in reviewing and assigning the correct procedure and diagnosis codes for professional services. Statistics show that examinees who complete the AAPC CPC Exam Preparation Course are twice as likely to pass the CPC exam as those who do not.

Practical applications, graded midway through each assignment, provide you with immediate feedback for a better understanding of your proficiency before you move forward to complete the assignment. Lectures walk you through your first practical application case in key chapters to increase your confidence when coding from a medical record.

STEP 3: Review Exam Requirements

AAPC's online exam review focuses on the most challenging coding concepts of the CPC exam and provides valuable test preparation tips such as best strategies to mark and use your coding resources. The review is divided by domains covered on the exam. Each session focuses on a single area of the exam, and reviews key concepts, test taking tips and strategies, and most commonly missed questions. The exam reviews do not teach coding. If you need comprehensive training, look instead to AAPC's CPC Exam Preparation Training Course (Step 2).

STEP 4: Sharpen Your Skills With the CPC Study Guide

The CPC study guide is not an introduction to coding, but a review of coding concepts. If you have coding experience or have successfully completed medical coding training, this study guide will optimize your exam preparation.

The CPC study guide reviews each section of the CPC exam in detail and provides practical examples, sample questions, and test taking techniques. Included are over 200 sample questions with answers and rationales. Twenty chapters guide you through a review of anatomy and terminology, ICD-10, HCPCS Level II, and CPT® coding for each body system, E/M coding, anesthesia, radiology, pathology/laboratory, and appropriate use of modifiers. The study guide also provides you with testing tips for taking AAPC's CPC exam.

STEP 5: Verify Your Knowledge with Practice Exams

AAPC's online practice exams were developed by the same people who created the CPC exam, and simulate the format, difficulty level, and time constraints of the actual exam. These practice exams make you more familiar with the format and time constraints of the real test, and provide you with the benefits of:

  • Immediate feedback – incorrect answers are displayed with rationales for all questions.
  • Unlimited retakes – take the exam as many times as you like.
  • Realistic exam content – emulates content and difficulty level of actual exams.
  • Readiness gauge – an indication of your readiness for the real exam.

The three practice exams, equaling the length of the 150-question exam, can be purchased separately or as a complete bundle.

Final Steps to Becoming a CPC

After you've studied, practiced, and passed the CPC exam, there are a few additional steps to earn your full CPC credential:

  • 1.

    Become an AAPC member. New AAPC members must submit membership payment with examination application. Renewing AAPC members must have a current membership at the time of submission and when exam results are released. Membership must be renewed annually.

  • 2.

    Verify your work experience. Regardless of your level of preparation, coding is a skill best learned and honed from hands-on application of coding principles and practical experience. To receive CPC designation, you must have at least two years' medical coding experience. If you do not initially meet this qualification, you'll receive a CPC-A® (apprentice) designation, until you've achieved the required experience.

  • 3.

    Maintain your certification through AAPC-approved continuing education units (CEUs). Healthcare technology and regulation changes rapidly. To demonstrate continued knowledge and expertise, a CPC must submit 36 CEUs every two years for verification. CEU-earning opportunities are available through AAPC, many of which are low or no cost and through approved vendors.

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