10 things to know about a career in medical coding


Is medical coding the right career choice for you? We've answered 10 key questions to help you arrive at your decision.

1. What do medical coders do?

Medical coders work with a team that includes medical billers, auditors, documentation specialists, and other health information technicians. Each of these plays a role in the 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 chasing down clues to find the best codes to tell the patient’s story.

Coders first must identify important details in the record, and then evaluate numerous codes to assign the precise code to represent each detail.

Getting the codes right is crucial. The right medical codes maintain the integrity of patient information, which plays a role in directing 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 — the coder will tell you that it’s the challenge of ‘the chase’ and the significance of the work that keeps them invested in what they do.

In return for their work, 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 employment opportunities, and the career paths within the industry — we imagine you’re wondering if this career choice is even feasible for you. Let’s first address your questions of practicality.

2. How much do medical coders earn?

Medical coding specialists make $27.91 per hour on average, or $58,055 annually, according to AAPC’s Annual Medical Coding Salary Survey. Not only does this wage exceed the median salary of all U.S. occupations, but it also ranges higher, depending on the type and location of the employer and on the coder’s credentials and experience.

If you’d like to learn more about potential salaries based on medical coding credentials, including variables such as employer type, years’ experience, primary role and responsibilities, or location, visit AAPC’s Annual Medical Coding Salary Survey or use our Salary Calculator.

3. Is there a job demand for medical coders?

The demand for medical coders is high and continues to rise due to the historic shift in U.S. age demographics. This growth of our older population poses healthcare challenges, including an anticipated shortage of 105,000 physicians by 2030, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

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 8% by 2029, with healthcare occupations adding more jobs than any of the other occupational groups, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

4. How long does it take to become a medical coder?

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 four months.

This is welcome news for persons interested in a medical coding career. 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 great.

5. How much does it cost to become a medical coder?

Colleges and universities charge up to $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 $3999.

6. What education is needed for a medical coding career?

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 take CPC training and pass the exam to earn their CPC certification demonstrate mastery of the CPT®, HCPCS Level II, and ICD-10-CM medical code sets. CPCs also have proven knowledge of federal and private payer policies, medical terminology, anatomy, and pathophysiology.

7. Is becoming a medical coder easy?

Becoming a medical coder is not easy. This job involves highly specialized skills that require a highly specialized education, as well as dedication and hard work.

Be wary of ads promising that you can prepare for a career in medical coding in just weeks. Medical coding is a high-stakes job, and the complexity of responsibilities is why medical coders are greatly compensated.

The complexity of the job is also why a professional certification trumps a diploma when it comes to getting hired. Employers know how rigorous the certification exams are, and they want the assurance coding certification offers.

And “becoming” is just the beginning. Once you earn your credential, your medical coding career will lead you on a lifelong adventure in learning.

8. What soft skills are helpful for a medical biller and coder?

Soft skills are a definite plus for any professional, and this remains true when it comes to a career in medical coding. How well a medical biller or coder works on a team, for instance, rates highly. Some hiring managers might give preference to someone who’s a team player over a job candidate with more coding or billing experience.

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

7 soft skills for medical coding and billing specialists:

  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 subtle differences in medical terminology and the smallest of details.

  2. Organized — Solid organizational skills to make the most of your time and space will help you avoid errors and meet your deadlines. If your medical coding career gives you the opportunity to work from home, organizational skills will keep you on task and maintain your performance.

  3. Ethical — Your job as a professional medical coder will involve safeguarding patient data according to HIPAA’s Privacy and Security rules. You’ll also need to observe payer policies to avoid fraud and abuse. Moreover, the ethical conduct expected of you in this career could mean you’ll be required to report unlawful activities in your workplace.

  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 with physicians, billers, supervisors, office staff, and even patients will help you succeed in your role.

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

  6. Curious — With new technologies, advancing standards of patient care, and evolving healthcare policies, medical coders need to embrace opportunities to learn. No matter how far along you are on the medical coding career path, you’ll face something new on the job 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.

9. Where do medical coders work?

The diversity of businesses and agencies employing medical coders opens myriad career opportunities. Besides health systems and hospitals, physician practices, and ambulatory surgery centers, coders are needed by:

  • 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 is reserved for mid-career coding professionals who have 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

10. What is the best medical coding program?

Many coding certificate programs offer an excellent education. The important thing is to look for training features that suit your learning style and to compare certification pass rates to help you gauge a program’s effectiveness.

The majority of AAPC students — those who enroll in online training or study in one of our classrooms — pass their certification exams. AAPC certification pass rates, in fact, are three times higher than those achieved by any other organization.

Additionally, AAPC is committed to supporting you throughout your medical coding career. We offer opportunities to network and provide resources to assist you as you work to achieve professional milestones.

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.

Fundamentals of Medicine

Set yourself up for success. Get the pre-requisite training you need.

Medical coding and billing takes time and practice to learn. And getting up to speed on the terminology and knowledge required can be like learning a whole new language. 

Certified Professional Coder (CPC)® Training

The CPC credential is the gold-standard credential for medical coders. AAPC's CPC Certification Preparation Course is an entry-level course that prepares you to take your CPC exam.

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