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Medical coding career: Myth vs reality


Contemplating a career in medical coding? When gathering decision-making info, you may encounter rumors that coding is easy and you can train to become a medical coder in weeks. False promises might suggest cozy mornings working from the couch while surfing Netflix. Reality, though, is another story.

As with any profession, medical coding involves deadlines and occasional sweat. It requires coders to possess concrete knowledge at a level of expertise that enables them to act with impeccable accuracy.

So, what's with all the misconceptions surrounding this career? Well, medical coding does offer an outstanding opportunity, and here's where the lines get blurred by schools embellishing details to boost enrollment in their programs. We’re going to set the record straight to help you make a wise career decision based on real-world expectations.

Myth #1: Medical coding is the same as medical billing.

Reality: Coders and billers sometimes work together, but medical coding and medical billing are distinct jobs.

Medical coding focuses on patient records and translating healthcare diagnoses, procedures, services, and supplies into numeric and alphanumeric codes. Reporting these codes to payers accomplishes multiple purposes, one of which ensures that healthcare providers get reimbursed for their services and supplies.

Medical billing pertains to the financial aspects of processing and submitting coded data through medical claims sent to insurance companies. The medical biller follows the money trail, which often takes twists and turns that threaten payment. As with medical coders, employers seek professionals with certification and work experience.

Myth #2: Medical coding is easy.

Reality: If you think medical coding is just looking up a code in a code book and plugging in data, you’ve fallen for one of many misconceptions.

The medical coder's job involves determining which patient health information recorded in the clinical documentation is relevant. This requires working knowledge of anatomy and medical terminology.

The coder must then evaluate numerous codes to assign the precise code to represent each detail. Even using code books and electronic record systems involves a learning curve — and, no, artificial intelligence doesn’t do the coder’s job.

Coders must understand intricate coding guidelines. If the coder gets the codes wrong, not only can the hospital or physician practice lose reimbursement, but they could get audited.

Coding professionals keep the revenue cycle turning and are compensated accordingly. What's more, they'll tell you it's the challenges that keep them excited to come to work. The typical lifespan of a coding career is 30+ years, and many coders choose professional satisfaction over retirement when the time comes.

Myth #3: You can learn medical coding in 4 weeks.

Reality: It's not possible to gain employable coding skills in just weeks. The breadth and complexity of information is too vast.

In addition to medical terminology, anatomy, and pathophysiology, you’ll need to learn three code sets, plus three sets of coding guidelines and nuanced areas such as modifiers, bundles, and E/M coding. Then there's HIPAA and other federal and state regulations. You'll even need to learn who the regulators are and how they operate.

Becoming acquainted with coding may take only weeks, but breaking into the job market requires months of formal training. You'll want to participate in a comprehensive training program to develop well-rounded coding skills — and to gain confidence in your new-found skills.

Be wary of shortcuts. If earning your certification and meeting real-world performance standards are the goal, time with the mechanics of the trade is your top priority.

Myth #4: You need 4 years of college to get a medical coding job.

Reality: Postsecondary education is great, but you do not need a 4-year bachelor’s degree or a 2-year associate degree to become a medical coder.

The fact that you can become a certified coding specialist in a fraction of the time and cost of college is one of the outstanding aspects of this career. It’s accessible, whether you’re fresh out of high school or in a dead-end job and can’t afford two years and $20K to change your life.

In terms of employability, the litmus test of a coder’s value to an organization is certification. Nothing gives potential employers a more reliable assessment of your proficiency than passing the certification exam.

To be clear, the coding credential carries more weight than the university degree because it’s a precise measure that says you know the ropes and are prepared to succeed in the workplace.

You can take a 4-year route to earn your credential, or you can take a 4- to 8-month route. The important thing, when choosing the coding program, is to make sure it has a high pass rate. By that we mean, do most students who complete formal training earn their coding credential? If not, look elsewhere.

Myth #5: It's easy for newly certified medical coders to get their first job.

Reality: New coders without work experience can find it difficult to crack the job market and land their first coding job. While this is true for most occupation, newly certified coders have a few things working in their favor.

First, medical coding is a stable profession. U.S. physicians see roughly 860.4 million patients annually — and that number doesn’t include hospital visits or patients seen outside the physician practice. Considering that every patient encounter must be coded, it’s no surprise that medical coders have been in demand, nor that job growth continues to rise. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 7.7% increase in employment opportunities for medical coders in the next decade.

The second asset coders have is membership with their accrediting organization. At AAPC, we offer a number of resources to help our members find their first job and advance throughout their career.

Among our newly certified job seekers, we’ve seen tremendous success with those who’ve taken advantage of membership resources, particularly networking opportunities such as AAPC members-only forums and social media groups. Our biggest success stories, though, happen in local chapter meetings, which are immediately available to all members, including students.

Myth #6: Both new and experienced coders can work from home.

Reality: Remote coding opportunities are reserved for experienced coders. But this could be changing.

To back up, remote coding wasn’t feasible until the advent of electronic record systems. Even then, once medical software had gained popularity, most remote coding opportunities were reserved for experienced coders. Employers insisted that apprentice coders gain job experience under their supervision.

But then came the 2020 shutdown. After seeing technology put to the test during the COVID pandemic, employers began opening up telecommuting options to more staff. We’re now seeing entry-level coders working from home, and this trend could remain.

Time will tell if technology overturns this longstanding myth. In the meantime, for the job seeker with eyes on the home front, it's reasonable to expect that your path to remote coding is now shorter.

Last Reviewed on July 5, 2022.

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