The Demand for Medical Coders Is on the Rise. Here’s How to Land a Gig

A medical coder works at her office in Tampa, Fla.
Raina Diaz works as a certified medical coder specializing in radiology at Orion Medical Management in Tampa, Fla. “I like the solitude, keeping busy reading the reports and figuring everything out,” Diaz says. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

After two years of following a doctor around the office as a medical assistant, Raina Diaz was ready for a change.

“I wanted to get away from working in the offices and being face-to-face with the patients and the physicians,” says Diaz, 47, of St. Petersburg, Florida. “I wanted to be part of the back end of the medical field.”

She decided to enroll at her local state college, where she learned that becoming a medical coder could be a way of staying in the field of medicine without being on the front lines. Now she’s a certified coder specializing in radiology, doing her part from the comfort of her office.

“I like the solitude, keeping busy reading the reports and figuring everything out,” she says.

According to 2016 data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the demand for medical coders is expected to rise due to an aging population that will require medical care. The findings suggest employment will grow 13% by 2026. The average median salary in 2017 was $39,180.

With the need for people specializing in medical coding increasing, what credentials and training do you need to get the job? To find out, we spoke with professionals working in the field and the classroom to guide you in the right direction.

What Does a Medical Coder Do?

Before you receive a bill from a hospital or a doctor’s office, a medical coder processes your medical chart.

After discharging the patient, the doctor passes the chart containing the diagnosis, treatment and other relevant information to the medical records department. Kengia Sabree, the health information technology academic chairwoman at St. Petersburg College, says the job of a medical coder is to review the health record and turn the relevant information into a coded classification system.

“The purpose of coding is to help reflect the severity of illness,” she says. “So if you’re not coding correctly, you’re not necessarily capturing how sick the patient is or all of the resources the hospital is using to care for the patient.”

Once all the information is coded, it’s sent to the billing department so the hospital can get reimbursed by the patient’s insurance company. But before you can walk into a hospital and start coding medical charts, you need a certification.

What Kind of Medical Coding Credentials Do I Need?

Aspiring coders need to decide before they begin their studies what kind of medical facility they want to work in. Melissa Myrick, director of health information management at BayCare Health Systems in Clearwater, Florida, says the two organizations offering credentials are the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) and the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC).

According to Myrick, each organization’s certifications specialize in different areas of coding. AHIMA focuses on inpatient coding used in hospitals, while AAPC focuses on outpatient coding for physicians’ offices or clinics.

If you’re interested in following the hospital track, look into obtaining the Certified Coding Associate (CCA) entry-level credential through AHIMA. But if working in clinics or outpatient centers sounds like a better fit, then go for the Certified Professional Coder (CPC) entry-level credential with AAPC.

Obtaining the CCA may demonstrate that the recipient knows the basics of coding, but it may not open up all hospital job opportunities. The Certified Coding Specialist credential (CCS) is a more advanced certification that requires on-the-job coding experience before someone is eligible to take it. “If you want to advance in a hospital, you’ll need a CCS after one year in the field,” Sabree says.

Do I Need a College Degree for Medical Coding?

The academic char of the medical program at St. Petersburg College poses for a portrait.
Kengia Sabree, the Health Information Technology academic chair at St. Petersburg College, says it’s up to medical coders to make sure everything is entered correctly into the system so no unnecessary charges are sent to the patient. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Sabree says aspiring medical coders in her program have two options to consider when they begin their studies. They can take the necessary core classes needed to prepare for the CCA exam, or they can stay in school and get their Health Information Technology associate of science degree — the parent degree for medical coding.

If a student wants to get into the workforce as quickly as possible, Sabree says, they can get a medical coding certificate. This certificate program includes essential classes like anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, intro to health information management, coding classes and field experience.

While that may be the quickest way into the field, Sabree encourages her students to stay and get their two-year associate degree. If the coder ever decides to go into management or move up the ranks in a hospital, they will need to obtain the Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT) certification.

“It may be a little bit easier to earn the associate’s degree in the beginning to prevent you from having to go back to school,” she says.

Plus, any extra experience and schooling in the beginning can give your resume a boost when applying for those competitive entry-level jobs.

“It’s a very difficult profession to be in without some good educational background and experience,” Myrick says. “We turn away coders quite often based on not having enough education and background for our positions.”

Is the Certificate Program Accredited?

A quick Google search will show many schools and websites offering courses on medical coding, but both Sabree and Myrick warn potential coders to do their research.

“We see so many billboards and flyers about becoming a medical coder in 10 weeks or six months,” Sabree say. “Those are what I call the fly-by-night programs.

“There’s something that you always have to keep in mind wherever you go: They [the schools] have to be programmatically accredited.”

For example, the Health Information Technology program at St. Petersburg College is accredited through the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management (CAHIIM), which is overseen by AHIMA. So when doing your due diligence, check to see if the school or certificate program is recognized by AHIMA or AAPC. You can check to see if your school or program is accredited through CAHIIM here or AAPC here.

What Entry-Level Medical Coding Jobs Are Available?

Now that you have your degree and credentials, it’s time to start applying for jobs. Sabree tells her students to look for medical coding jobs such as “coding apprenticeships,” “coding level one” and “coding trainee.”

“Those are the coding positions that are geared toward people without having the experience, and then the facility typically guides you from there,” she says. Depending on the medical facility, exams may be given to figure out which types of coding are best for the new coder.

X-rays, electrocardiograms or emergency room coding are some of the focuses entry-level coders can expect. Myrick says coders will need to start there before moving up to coding for specialties.

In recent years, the option to work from home instead of at hospitals or clinics has become more available. Sabree says some places are hiring people to work remotely right away, while others require coders to meet productivity goals before giving them that option.

“I tell my students if you want to work from home and that’s the only reason why you’re getting into this, then you’re getting into this for the wrong reasons,” Sabree says.

And who is best suited for this line of work? Lifelong learners who are interested in the field of medicine, according to Sabree.

If that describes you, then you’re in luck. Coders are critical in a hospital, according to Myrick and her BayCare colleagues. She says, “When we’re asked about the career opportunities, we always talk about coders and nursing, so they’re both great career paths to follow.”

Matt Reinstetle is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He writes about career advice and side gigs. Follow him on Twitter @MattReinstetle.