How to become a medical coder
So you’d like to work in healthcare, but not on the front lines. You want a career you can start within months, not years. You also want a respectable and well compensated career but don’t want to pay a fortune on education. Medical coding might be perfect for you.
If you’re considering this career path or are standing at the starting line, unsure of the steps to take toward becoming a medical coder, we’re here to help you plot your course.
Mapping the journey — From career choice to hire-ready to you’re hired!
Becoming a certified medical coder will open doors to new jobs and position you in the workforce as a legitimate professional. Physicians and provider organizations, such as hospitals and surgery centers, depend on medical coders.
In their everyday work, medical coders help to secure payer reimbursement, regulatory compliance, and continuity of patient care — all of which are of utmost importance in the business of healthcare. And as vital as patient outcome and revenue cycle integrity are, the work of medical coders has far-reaching effects, contributing to global initiatives that include:
Tracking public health conditions
Improving data for epidemiological research
Measuring outcomes and care provided to patients
Determining which healthcare services are medically necessary
Steps to become a medical coder
Test-drive your career choice with a few basic questions
Take a medical coding training course
Study for the CPC exam
Pass the CPC certification exam
Network at your local chapter
Get a job
Further your career — Get another certification
Earn an advanced certification & earn more
Step 1: Test-drive your career choice with a few basic questions
It’s helpful to conduct a preliminary self-assessment before making a career decision. With medical coding, your primary question should be, Am I genuinely interested in healthcare? While you won’t be required to go to med school or earn a postsecondary diploma in life sciences, you will need related coursework to understand the language of medicine.
Medical coders review clinical documentation, or doctor’s notes, and translate diagnoses, procedures, and supplies into medical codes that can then be submitted to commercial and federal payers. This means you’ll need to know your way around medical terminology, anatomy, and pathophysiology.
Am I up for studying the prerequisite subjects?
Does the idea of a job that requires knowledge of anatomy and medical terminology interest me?
Would working with medical staff be inspiring to me?
A career in the healthcare industry as a medical coder offers personal, professional, and financial reward, as well as unlimited opportunities to advance in a profession you can be proud of. But medical coding is not for everyone.
If science isn’t your thing, we recommend an extra step in your preliminary self-assessment: Talk to medical coders about the job to be confident it’s the right career decision for you.
Step 2: Take a medical coding training course
Like any new career, training is crucial to becoming a successful medical coder. Your first step, then, is to enroll in a medical coding training program.
There are 4 types of medical coding certifications, so you’ll need to choose which type of medical coding you’d like to do. No worries, though. This decision is both easy and entry-level.
Choosing which medical coding certification is a good launching point for your career depends only on where you think you’d like to work (e.g., doctor’s office, outpatient hospital, inpatient hospital, insurance company).
Your decision doesn’t lock you into one healthcare environment for the duration of your career. It’s merely a starting point.
Core medical coding certifications
Training programs for each of the 4 core certifications focus on the unique reimbursement system used in a defined healthcare setting.
Certified Professional Coder (CPC) – medical practices
Certified Outpatient Coder (COC) – outpatient hospital, urgent care, ambulatory surgery centers
Certified Inpatient Coder (CIC) – inpatient hospital/ facilities
Certified Risk Adjustment Coder (CRC) – insurances and all healthcare settings
Why choose AAPC?
AAPC sets the standards for medical coding — and created the professional certifications for the industry. We specialize exclusively in healthcare business education, and our top-ranked training programs boast pass rates unmatched by any other medical coding school.
Step 3: Study for the CPC exam
Because most medical coding students choose to start their careers by opting to become certified professional coders (CPCs), let’s focus on this one career path to simplify the steps that follow, though these steps do apply to all core certifications.
Passing the CPC exam — or any medical coding certification exam — isn’t easy. For this reason, employers prefer certified over degreed coders. Employers know how rigorous the CPC exam is. These three letters added to your name means you have demonstrated skills they can rely on.
You’ll want to be well prepared for test day. Among your time in the books, consider tapping into one or more study aids to reinforce your medical coding training.
Study tools for CPC exam
AAPC’s Practice Exams are developed by the same people who created the CPC exam and offer the best means to prepare you to pass the certification exam. Thousands of students, having put their training to the test using this online resource, attribute their success to the decision.
The Official CPC® Certification Study Guide reviews each section of the CPC exam and provides practical examples and test taking techniques. Over 200 sample questions with answers and rationales are included in the guide.
AAPC's online exam review is a short review course that focuses on the most challenging coding concepts on the CPC exam, including commonly missed questions.
Step 4: Pass the CPC certification exam
Once you complete your CPC training, you'll want to schedule your credentialing exam to validate your expertise.
What to expect
The CPC® exam will assess your ability to accurately apply ICD-10-CM, CPT®, and HCPCS Level II codes for the spectrum of services — including evaluation and management (E/M), anesthesia, surgery, radiology, pathology, and medicine. Correct answers will require:
Mastery of anatomy, pathophysiology, and medical terminology
Working knowledge of medical coding guidelines and regulations
Study, practice, and get plenty of rest before exam day. In-person certification exams take up to 4 hours to work through the 100 questions, but don’t stress. You can pass your CPC exam with good preparation and support.
Step 5: Network at your local chapter
One of the best ways to find a new job is networking. CPC students should not wait until they’re certified to get involved with their local AAPC chapter.
Local chapters are invaluable for keeping certified coders and medical coding students appraised of what’s happening in their fields. Participation forges relationships with experts, mentors, and peers. It provides opportunities to learn from guest speakers and, once certified, take on leadership roles, and more.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of local meetings, though, whether virtual or in-person, is the ability to let others know when you’re on the hunt for a job. You’ll find your peers eager to support you and maybe even put in a word for you when coding or related positions open with their employers.
More networking opportunities:
Step 6: Get a job
If you are looking for your first job as a medical coder, take advantage of job-hunting resources exclusively available to you as an AAPC member.
Fast-track your coding apprenticeship
Upon passing your CPC exam, newly certified professional coders receive the CPC-A credential. The “A” signifies apprenticeship status. Removing this status typically requires two years of coding experience.
But CPC-As can reinforce medical coding proficiency with concentrated, hands-on coding practice gained through Practicode. Passing all three Practicode modules equates with one year of on-the-job medical coding, allowing CPC-As to fast-track their apprenticeship status.
Step 7: Further your career — Get another certification
If you’ve been a medical coder for a few years and are looking to advance your career, you might want to broaden your domain knowledge by adding a second core certification to your wheelhouse. If you’re a CPC, for example, earning your COC certification is a smart move in view of the consolidation trend between hospitals and physician practices.
If you’re working toward a promotion, you might think about roles such as coder II, coding supervisor, coding educator, and specialty coder. The average salary for medical coders with a specialty credential is $64,712 annually. This is 11% higher than the median salary of $58,055 for non-specialized CPCs.
Step 8: Earn an advanced certification & earn more
In addition to specialty coding, certified professional coders can branch into an advanced healthcare business role, such as:
Certified Professional Medical Auditor (CPMA) is responsible for auditing medical charts and physician documentation. This position also requires strong written and verbal communication skills to report findings.
Certified Physician Practice Manager (CPPM) oversees all facets of the physician office, including revenue, compliance, human resources, health information technology, and more.
Certified Documentation Expert Outpatient (CDEO)is responsible for evaluating medical records to ensure completeness, accuracy, and compliance with coding and payer guidelines.
Certified Professional Compliance Officer (CPCO) develops, implements, and monitors a compliance program in the physician practice setting, which typically involves auditing physicians to ensure compliance with Medicare and other federal regulations.
Your journey to become a medical coder starts today
AAPC offers free career counseling to help you make the best decisions for your situation. Just reach out by calling 877-290-0440 or arrange for a career counselor call you.
If you have all the information you need, you can enroll in the medical coding program of your choice by visiting certification training. Remember — the sooner you pull the trigger, the sooner you sit down to your first day on the job!
About the author
Thought Leadership Team
Editorial Staff / AAPC
The AAPC Thought Leadership Team is a distinguished consortium of experts, visionaries, and thought leaders committed to shaping the landscape in the industry. With a deep understanding of the profound impact our industry has on society, this council serves as a guiding force, driving the development and implementation of ethical standards in coding practices.
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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