Medical Coding as a Career

Medical Coding as a Career

Choosing a new career can be intimidating. Is medical coding the right career choice for you? We’ve answered some key questions to help you arrive at your decision.

What Medical Coders Do

Medical coders work with a team that includes medical billers, auditors, documentation specialists, and other revenue cycle management professionals — collectively known as Each of these plays a role in the organization and management of health information data. Health information technicians who specialize in coding are called medical coders or medical coding specialists.

Medical coding happens every time you go to the doctor. Every time a patient sees a physician for medical treatment or evaluation, a record is kept. This record includes the patient’s symptoms and medical history, the doctor’s observations, and the services the physician rendered, as well as diagnostic tests and results, diagnoses, treatment plans, and treatment outcomes.

Medical coders review the patient record and translate items mentioned above into classified numeric and alphanumeric codes. This may sound straightforward, but coding a medical chart often involves a pursuit down a trail of clues to find the best codes to tell the patient’s story. Coders must first abstract critical details from the record, and then evaluate numerous codes to assign the precise code to represent each detail.

Getting the codes right is paramount. The right medical codes maintain the integrity of patient information, which is crucial to patient care. The right codes also preserve the financial wellbeing of the healthcare organization, as codes form the basis of medical claims submitted to insurances for payment.

If you speak to a medical coder — and you should if you’re considering a career in medical coding — he or she will tell you that it’s the challenge of ‘the pursuit’ and the significance of the work that keeps them invested in what they do.

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In return for their investment, medical coders are well respected and well compensated. And while there’s more to tell you about this profession — including the types of medical coding certifications, the selection of employment opportunities, and the many career paths within the industry — we imagine you’re wondering if this career choice is even feasible for you. Let us first address your questions of practicality.

How Much Do Medical Coders Earn?

Medical coding specialists make $26.89 per hour on average, or $55,923 annually, according to AAPC’s Annual Salary Survey. Not only does this wage exceed the median salary of all U.S. occupations by 14.9%, but it can range higher, depending on the type and location of the employer and on the coder’s credentials and experience. The salary for coders with two credentials, for instance, rises to an average of $31.19 per hour. With three credentials, billing and coding professionals earn approximately $33.95 per hour, or $70,608 per year.

AAPC conducts its salary survey annually, polling its membership of more than 200,000 health information technicians to identify trends based on the professional diversity of this community. Every year, we’ve consistently seen salary averages among medical billing and coding specialists and other revenue cycle professionals increase between 5% to 9%. The prospects for this career, in terms of financial security, is outstanding — particularly considering the average wage increase across all industries has held in the vicinity of 3.1% for several years, according to the 2019 General Industry Salary Budget Survey.

Is There a High Demand for Medical Coders?

Healthcare is essential, which fuels the steady demand for medical coders. And while this demand has remained high, it continues to increase due to the historic shift in U.S. age demographics.

As the last of the baby boomer generation enters their senior years, we’re seeing a boom in our older population. The United States Census Bureau aptly describes us as an aging nation. Nearly one in six U.S. residents are 65 and older, and this ratio is expected to climb to one in five, or 78 million people, by 2030. By 2050, the number of persons 85 years and older will have tripled.

The projected growth of our older population will pose healthcare challenges. Because of the prevalence of chronic conditions among this age group, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) anticipates a shortage of approximately 105,000 physicians by 2030.

The rising demand for healthcare providers extends to medical billers and coders who support hospitals, ambulatory surgical centers, and physician-based practices. Job growth for health information technicians is projected to grow 18% by 2026. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Healthcare occupations are projected to add more jobs than any of the other occupational groups.”

How Much Does It Cost to Become a Medical Coder?

Colleges and universities charge between $4,500 and $19,500 for medical coding studies. But you don’t need a four-year bachelor's degree or even a two-year associate degree to become a certified coder. Receiving your training through a reputable coding certificate program has advantages — one being that you can transition to this financially rewarding career for under $1999.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Medical Coder?

Becoming a medical coder requires specialized training and certification but takes significantly less time than other healthcare occupations. Many medical coding programs can be completed online in less than a year. Depending on the student’s availability, training to earn your coding credential can take as little as six months.

This is welcome news for persons interested in the field. Whether you’ve recently received your high school diploma or currently work full-time, training for your career in medical coding is attainable. And while the investments of time and cost are low, the rewards of the profession are high. Largely for this reason, medical coding ranks third on the U.S. News and World Report’s list of Best Jobs Without A College Degree.

What Education Is Needed for Medical Coding?

Education varies based on which type of medical coding interests you. For pro-fee coding used in medical practices, the industry standard for accredited education is the Certified Professional Coder (CPC®).

People who have passed the CPC exam and earn their CPC certification have demonstrated mastery of the CPT®HCPCS Level II, and ICD-10-CM medical code sets, as well as evaluation and management principles, surgical coding, and adherence to coding guidelines. CPCs also have proven knowledge of federal and private payer policies, medical terminology, anatomy, and pathophysiology.

Is Becoming a Medical Coder Easy?

Becoming a medical coder is not easy. If it were easy, being a medical coder would be dull. This job involves highly specialized skills that demand a highly specialized education, as well as dedication and hard work.

Be wary of ads promising that you can pick up the trade in a matter of weeks. Medical coding is a high-stakes job, and the complexity of their responsibilities is why medical coders are greatly valued and compensated accordingly.

The complexity of the job is also why a professional certification trumps a diploma when it comes to getting hired. Employers want the assurance coding certification offers. They know how rigorous the certification exams are — and how few people pass on their first attempt. Certification carries weight. It matters little, in other words, if you have a college degree in medical coding but do not have the industry’s stamp of approval. Whichever educational path you choose, you’ll want to sit for and pass the certification exam to earn your coding credential.

And “becoming” is just the beginning. Once you earn your coding credential, your career as a professional coder will lead you on a lifelong adventure in learning. You’ll likely develop an interest in advanced certifications. As well, like healthcare professionals working on the clinical side of medicine, you’ll be required to complete 36 hours of continuing education every two years to keep abreast of new medical treatments and changing codes and guidelines.

What Soft Skills Are Helpful for a Medical Biller and Coder?

Soft skills are a definite plus for any professional. How well a medical biller or coder works on a team, for instance, rates highly. Some hiring managers might actually give preference to someone who’s a team player over a job candidate with multiple coding credentials. Soft skills make a difference.

But medical coders are not one-size-fits-all. Neither are they born with certain traits coded into their DNA. The main question you should ask if you’re wondering whether medical coding is a good fit for you is, Will I enjoy being a medical coder? If you’re interested in medicine, enjoy sleuthing to solve mysteries, and think you’d like to work with doctors and nurses and patients, you’re likely going to love this career path. And enjoying what you do is the first key to success.

So while soft skills are important, they don’t need to come naturally. You simply need the ability to cultivate qualities that will complement your work as a medical coder.

Top 7 Soft Skills for Medical Coders

  • 1.

    Detail oriented — Precision is paramount in medical coding. One word in a clinician’s documentation can change the coder’s ability to select the right code for a procedure or diagnosis. You must be able to hone your attention to notice subtle differences in medical terminology and to ensure every detail is correct.

  • 2.

    Organized —Solid organizational skills that govern your time and physical space will help you to work efficiently, avoid errors, and meet your deadlines. If your coding career affords you the opportunity to work remotely, your organizational skills will keep you on task and enable you to maintain productivity.

  • 3.

    Ethical — Your job as a professional medical coder will involve access to sensitive medical information, and you will be required under HIPAA’s Privacy and Security rules to handle patient data with uncompromised adherence to the law. You will also need to observe payer policies to avoid healthcare fraud and abuse. Moreover, ethical behavior will require you to report unlawful activities in your workplace, should the need arise. A breach of ethical conduct in healthcare, no matter how minor, is always serious and consequential.

  • 4.

    Social — While professional coders work independently, a routine part of the job involves collaborating with colleagues to discuss medical procedures, clinical documentation, patient charts, and billing issues. As a coding specialist, you should enjoy working on a team. The ability to ask questions and exchange ideas and knowledge with physicians, billers, supervisors, office staff, and even patients will help you succeed in your role.

  • 5.

    Analytical — Do you like to connect the dots? Strong critical thinking skills will take you far in your medical coding career. The ability to apply logic and analyze information is invaluable when abstracting data from clinical documentation and then translating that data into codes.

  • 6.

    Curious — Health information management is dynamic. With new technologies, advancing standards of care, and ever-evolving healthcare policies, a medical coder will need to embrace opportunities to learn. No matter how long you've been on the job, you’ll face something new almost every day.

  • 7.

    Computer Proficient — The adoption of electronic health records (EHR) requires medical coders to be computer savvy and able to learn EHR computer software. One aspect of your job as a coding specialist will involve maintaining EHR security and analyzing electronic data to improve healthcare information.

Where Do Medical Coders Work?

The diversity of businesses and agencies employing coders opens myriad career opportunities. In fact, you'll find coding jobs in some unexpected places. Besides health systems and hospitals, physician offices, and ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs), coders are needed by the following types of employers:

  • Urgent care clinics
  • Sports medicine clinics
  • Mental health practices
  • Hospices
  • Telehealth providers
  • Collection agencies
  • Risk adjustment vendors
  • Insurance companies
  • Professional liability companies
  • Federal government agencies
  • Information technology services
  • Law firms
  • Dental offices
  • Durable medical equipment and supply vendors
  • Imaging centers
  • Physical therapy centers
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Home health agencies
  • Consulting firms
  • EHR software vendors
  • Accountable care organizations
  • Workman’s compensation companies
  • State government agencies
  • Career colleges
  • Medical billing service
  • Medical laboratories
  • Rehabilitation services
  • Clearinghouses
  • Cancer registries

Healthcare organizations occasionally hire remote coders to manage their medical coding online, making working from home a possibility. According to AAPC’s annual medical coding salary survey, more than one-third of AAPC-certified medical coders and billers work remotely.

Some medical coders go on to teach at universities, colleges, and other medical coding training programs. Others choose to become their own boss, working as SMEs on a contractual basis.

A SME, pronounced smee, is simply a subject matter expert. Becoming a SME, of course, is reserved for mid-career coding professionals who’s worked in the industry long enough to have developed areas of expertise. Opportunities for SMEs in healthcare include working long- and short-term as:

  • Training specialists
  • Software vendor consultants
  • Curriculum contributors
  • Trade journal contributors
  • Bloggers
  • Partners with high school healthcare organizations
  • Textbook writers, reviewers, and contributors
  • Healthcare consultants for a law firm
  • Instructors/Tutors
  • Auditors
  • Analysts
  • Accreditation organizations
  • Exam writers and reviewers for medical coding certification companies
  • Board members of healthcare-related companies

Still, among the surfeit of employment options for medical coders, where you work will depend on where you’re qualified to work. Not all code systems apply to all healthcare settings.

Which Medical Coding Certification Is Right for Me?

You have four medical coding certifications to choose from when entering the profession. Training programs for each of these certifications focuses on a unique reimbursement system used in a defined healthcare setting.

The 4 Core Medical Coding Certifications

1 2 3 4
Certification Certified Professional Coder (CPC) Certified Outpatient Coder (COC) Certified Inpatient Coder (CIC) Certified Risk Adjustment Coder (CRC)
Workplace Physician Office Hospital/facility or Ambulatory Surgical Center Hospital/facility Health plan, Risk adjustment vendor; all settings
Reimbursement System Professional Fee Coding Outpatient Facility Coding Facility Coding ICD-10-CM guidelines and RA guidelines
Code Sets CPT®, HCPCS Level II, and ICD-10-CM CPT®, HCPCS Level II, and ICD-10-CM ICD-10-PCS, ICD-10-CM, and Medicare-Severity Diagnostic-Related Groups (DRGs) ICD-10-CM and Hierarchical Condition Categories (HCC)
  • 1.

    Certified Professional Coder (CPC) — CPCs code in physician-based settings, like doctors’ offices and urgent care centers. Students who pursue this certification learn pro-fee coding, which is integral to physician reimbursement. CPCs review medical charts and assign CPT®, HCPS Level II, and ICD-10-CM codes for insurance billing of services and procedures.

  • 2.

    Certified Outpatient Coder (COC) — Students who earn their COC credential go on to bill outpatient hospital and ASC facility services to government and private payers using CPT®, HCPCS Level II, and ICD-10-CM coding. Certification training gives COCs a solid understanding of the Hospital Outpatient Prospective Payment System, which requires CPT® codes to be reported through Ambulatory Payment Classifications (APCs).

  • 3.

    Certified Inpatient Coder (CIC) — The CIC credential recognizes expertise in inpatient facility coding, which is performed in hospitals and hospital-type settings. Inpatient coding differs from physician-based coding in that it focuses on services provided by the facility, rather than on services provided by the physician. CICs assign ICD-10-PCS codes to report services. These services represent use of surgical suites, medical monitoring devices, recovery room time, and nursing services associated with procedures and services provided for the entirety of a patient’s hospital stay. ICD-10-CM codes are used to report inpatient diagnoses, but coding guidelines differ from outpatient guidelines. CICs also assign patients to one of several hundred Medicare-Severity Diagnostic-Related Groups (MS-DRG). MS-DRGs factor into reimbursement for patients covered by payers using the MS-DRG system.

  • 4.

    Certified Risk Adjustment Coder (CRC) — CRCs are employed by health plans and by vendors working with health plans. They also play a valuable role in physician practices that have risk-based contracts. Students earning their CRC credential possess expertise in the complexity of diseases associated with chronic conditions and comorbidities. They are equipped to ensure clinical documentation accurately portrays the patient’s health status. Because the goal is to represent an accurate clinical picture, mastery of ICD-10-CM guidelines and risk adjustment guidelines is foundational to the work of a risk adjustment coder.

Choosing a coding certification before you begin your career can feel risky. This decision, though, doesn’t lock you into one healthcare environment for the duration of your career. All credentials have equal professional value — none is a right or wrong choice. They’re just different.

And with roughly 1.5 billion patient visits per year — with each patient visit requiring coded documentation and records — it’s not surprising that medical coding is one of the most sought-after healthcare careers. But equally important to know when choosing which area of medical coding you’d like to pursue, the Bureau of Labor assures us that all areas of the healthcare industry will see an increased need for skilled professionals like yourself.

Which Medical Coding Certification Pays the Most?

All coding jobs pay well, but of the four core medical coding credentials, COCs currently earn more, averaging $65,028 per year.

 Credential Average Salary
Certified Outpatient Coder (COC) $65,028
Certified Risk Adjustment Coder (CRC) $64,882
Certified Inpatient Coder (CIC) $63,191
Certified Professional Coder (CPC) $57,201

If you’d like to find more information about potential salaries based on medical coding credentials, including variables such as employer type, years’ experience, primary role and responsibilities, or location, go to our Salary Calculator.

Plotting Your Coding Career Path

Many professional coders enjoy lifelong careers with their core medical coding credential. Most healthcare business professionals, though, build on their coding education and branch into related roles. With multiple credentials and a diversity of skills and experience, the options along your career path are endless.

Chart a Course for Career Advancement

As you plan your career, think about your strengths and weaknesses, and what you most enjoy doing. Also, consider current industry trends in healthcare and opportunities at your current place of employment.

Your career path plan should include a list of activities needed to reach your goal, along with resources to support achieving it. AAPC has an array of credentialing opportunities for many of the diverse professional healthcare business roles available. Identify which certification(s) will support your desired role.

Entry-Level Positions

Newly credentialed coders entering the industry sometimes encounter difficulty landing their first medical coding position due to lack of experience. It is important to persist in your employment pursuits, but it’s also important to stay flexible and open to opportunities that will get you in the door. For beginner or entry-level medical coders, employment may include non-coding roles associated with billing or insurance claim processing.

Brenda Edwards, CPC, CDEO, CPB, CPMA, CPC-I, CEMC, CRC, CMRS, CMCS, has over 30 years of experience in chart audit, billing and coding, education, consulting, practice management, and compliance. She never dreamed she’d have “such a fun and interesting career in healthcare.” But for this music performance major, it began working the reception desk. She worked in scheduling, insurance, collecting on bad debt, pulling and filing medical records, and yes, coding. Now she serves as the executive management consultant at SCBI. Brenda’s advice to new coders? “Get that credential, take that entry-level position, volunteer to get experience, join a local chapter, and network your way up.”

Intermediate-Level Positions

If you have been a medical coder for a few years and are looking to advance your career, you have numerous opportunities to choose from. Seek to attain additional credentials to reinforce your technical coding skills and bolster your critical, analytical, and management skills.

Are willing to broaden your responsibilities? If you’re looking for a mid-career promotion, you might think about roles such as coder II and higher, coding educator, validation specialist, coding supervisor, and specialty coder.

While specialty certifications don’t apply to inpatient coding, they’re useful to CPCs and COCs. (COCs without physician-based coding experience would also need to take Evaluation and Management (E/M) Online Training.)

The average salary for coders with a specialty credential is $62,175 annually. This is 8.7% higher than the median salary of $57,201 for non-specialized CPCs. Specialty certifications include:

Ambulatory Surgical Center (CASCC™) General Surgery (CGSC™)
Anesthesia and Pain Management (CANPC™) Hematology and Oncology (CHONC™)
Cardiology (CCC™) Interventional Radiology and Cardiovascular (CIRCC®)
Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery (CCVTC™) Obstetrics Gynecology (COBGC™)
Dermatology (CPCD™) Ophthalmology (COPC™)
Emergency Department - CEDC™) Orthopedic Surgery (COSC™)
Evaluation and Management (CEMC™) Pediatrics (CPEDC™)
Family Practice (CFPC™) Rheumatology (CRHC™)
Gastroenterology (CGIC™) Urology (CUC™)

Another mid-career option to consider is adding a second core certification to your wheelhouse. If, for example, you’re a CPC, why not train for COC certification? This could be an invaluable move in view of the consolidation trend between hospitals and physician practices. A time may come when coders might need proficiency in both physician-based and facility coding.

Risk adjustment coding is also a key skillset to bring to the table. Used in all healthcare settings (inpatient, outpatient, physician practice), risk adjustment coding plays a significant role in securing optimal reimbursement, as well as MACRA incentive pay. Employers profit greatly from staffing CRCs —so much so that employers will often pay for CRC training. Mid-career coders leveraging this opportunity stand to raise their earning potential by 13.43%.

Additional Intermediate-Level Credentials

You also have the option to move into other healthcare business roles, such as:

  • Certified Documentation Expert Outpatient (CDEO®) — As a CDEO, you may be responsible for evaluating medical records to ensure completeness, accuracy, and compliance with coding and payer guidelines.
  • Certified Professional Medical Auditor (CPMA®) — As a CPMA, you may be responsible for auditing medical charts and physician documentation. This position requires proficiency in evaluating physician documentation for medical necessity and strong written and verbal communication skills to report findings.
  • Certified Professional Compliance Officer CPCO® — As a CPCO, you may develop, implement, and monitor a compliance program for your physician office or help others in their compliance efforts. CPCOs generally perform audits on physicians to ensure that coding and documentation is in compliance with Medicare, other federal insurance programs, and third-party regulations.
  • Certified Physician Practice Manager (CPPM®) — As a CPPM, you will oversee all facets of the physician office, including revenue, compliance, human resources, health information technology, and more.

“My main expertise is in rules and regulations. Every area within coding has rules, regulations, and guidelines that must be followed. Being a Certified Professional Medical Auditor (CPMA®) and Certified Professional Compliance Officer (CPCO®) is a natural fit for me because I’m very rule-focused. It seems only natural that I created and managed a team of auditors for last 10 years. I’m now working in risk adjustment and ramping up to earn my Certified Risk Adjustment Coder (CRC®) credential.

–Julie Davis, COC, CPC, CPCO, CDEO, CPMA, CRC, CPC-I, AAPC Fellow

Advanced-Level Positions

Countless responsibilities, expectations, and deadlines come with management positions. If your career path is moving towards a position in leadership, know that higher education may be a necessity depending on the position and employer. You do not need to be an expert in all things, but you should be able to perform at a high level and effectively execute the roles and responsibilities related to your position. Whatever your aspiration, know that you can accomplish it with hard work, smart planning, and continual investment in YOU.

Advanced-level coding professional positions include coding manager, consultant, revenue cycle manager, performance improvement, HIM manager, compliance auditor, and fraud/waste investigator.

Master-Level Positions

If you’ve put in the time and have the required technical and soft skills needed to become proficient not only in medical coding but also in associated functional areas such as revenue cycle management, compliance, and process improvement, you’re eligible for a master-level position.

For master-level positions, employers look for someone with 10 or more years of experience, with a number of those years spent in management. Employers may also prefer an individual with a master’s degree.

Whether you’re working for an organization or working for yourself, master-level positions require excellent communication and interpersonal skills. Your career path will need to include activities for developing business, relational, and clinical acumen.

Master-level positions open to you might include coding director, compliance officer, him director, project management, college professor, VP coding, operations director, and consultant (CEO).

What Is the Best Medical Coding Program?

Many technical schools and community colleges offer medical coding programs that culminate with a certificate of completion, an associate degree, or a bachelor’s degree. The best coding program for you may depend on your long-term goals. If you have your sights on directing health information management, a four-year degree program may be a wise investment.

But the college route isn’t the only route to your career in healthcare. Many coding certificate programs offer an excellent education. The important thing is to do your research before you enroll in a program. Look for training features that suit your learning style and, above all, compare certification pass rates to see how many graduates successfully attain their coding credential.

Remember, the credential is the gold standard in this industry. Hiring managers want to see an AAPC credential because it demonstrates mastery of the skills they depend on. Make sure you choose a program that will get you there and beyond.

The majority of AAPC students — those who enroll in online training or study in one of our classrooms — pass their certification exams. What’s more, according to our latest survey, 85% of these newly certified professional coders went on to secure gainful employment.

About AAPC Resources

AAPC specializes in healthcare business education. Not only did we create the industry’s accreditations for coders and billers, clinical documentation specialists, medical auditors, healthcare compliance officers, and practice managers, but we’ve been teaching these programs for more than 30 years.

Our experience means top-rated training. And the proof of our success is in our certification exam pass rates, which more than doubles the pass rates achieved by third-party programs. When you study with AAPC, you receive training with the same standard of excellence as the credentials themselves.

AAPC is committed to supporting you throughout the duration of your career. We offer opportunities to network with peers and provide resources to assist you as you work to achieve professional milestones. You can access our database of coding jobs and check Tips for Job Seekers to land your dream coding job. Our employment forums are gold for encouragement, how-to advice, and word-of-mouth job openings.

You can also take advantage of our Project Xtern program, which gives you the opportunity to test drive medical coding and gain essential experience before becoming a full-fledged coder.

And if you’re looking for career advice, AAPC offers free career counseling to help you make the best decisions for your situation and needs. Our career counselors are available at your convenience and eager to answer your questions, lay out your career training options, and support you on your journey. Feel free to call 877-290-0440 to speak to a career counselor or have a career counselor call you.

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