How to Become a Medical Coder
Reviewed by Brandy Gleason
You don't need a bachelor's degree to become a medical coder and break into a growing industry on track to add 29,000 new jobs over the next decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment in medical records and health information will increase by 8% from 2019-2029.
Medical coders have the complicated task of deciphering laboratory results, procedures, and diagnoses and translating this information into universal medical codes during the billing process.
Standardized medical codes help payers understand the specific treatments and services that patients receive for medical conditions. The data ensures that healthcare providers receive reimbursement from insurance carriers. Researchers and healthcare administrators also use the data to monitor health trends and better understand patient services.
As healthcare providers move to digitize records and increasingly use mobile health applications, there will likely be a greater demand for medical coders, according to the U.S. Medical Coding Market Outlook 2028.
Medical coders do not need an associate degree, although employers may prefer it. Keep reading this guide to find out how to become a medical coder, the training you need, and the expected salary.
What Are the Requirements to Become a Medical Coder?
Becoming a medical coder typically requires training through a certificate program or associate degree. Prospective medical coders can find medical coding programs at community colleges and technical schools. Earning a postsecondary certificate takes 1-2 years or less.
Specific requirements for medical coders depend on employers. Employers often hire individuals with only a high school degree and medical coding training. Some jobs may require a two-year associate degree in medical coding and billing or a four-year bachelor's degree.
After medical coding training, students can opt to earn certification, which can boost their marketability and pay. Professional associations such as the American Academy of Professional Coders offer credentials to become a certified professional coder, certified inpatient coder, or certified outpatient coder. Certification requires passing an exam.
What Does Medical Coding Training Look Like?
Future medical coders all learn the same core skills, regardless of whether they earn a college degree or certificate, but it’s important for the program to be accredited. The training prepares students to work in various healthcare institutions. The BLS reports that 37% of medical records and health information specialists work in hospitals. They also find jobs in physician offices, surgery centers, and administrative and support services.
Students learn coding and classification systems by taking courses such as ICD-CM coding, ICD-PCS coding, and revenue cycle and billing. Courses also focus on maintaining patient files and protecting confidentiality.
Training programs and degrees provide a comprehensive understanding of medical codes and reimbursement. Courses teach students medical terminology; pharmacology; pathophysiology; and the appropriate coding for diagnoses, procedures, and equipment. These programs prepare students to take exams from the American Health Information Management Association or the American Academy of Professional Coders.
To earn an associate degree, students complete general education credits in addition to medical coding courses. Students enrolled in an associate program must complete an average of 60-65 credits, whereas certificate programs require about 30-35 credits. However, associate programs better prepare learners for a bachelor's degree, making an associate a strong choice for learners interested in further education later on.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Medical Coder?
The educational pathway you choose dictates how long it takes to become a medical coder. A certificate program takes as few as nine months or up to 20 months. The average associate degree takes a full-time student about two years to complete.
Factors such as the number of required credits and the program format (online or in person) can also influence how long it takes to become a medical coder. Students who have completed previous college work can also earn an associate or bachelor's degree quicker, depending on the number of transfer credits their school accepts.
Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Medical Coder
Medical coders work behind the scenes to classify medical diagnoses, symptoms, and procedures. Every medical transaction between a patient and healthcare provider turns into a standard code. This ensures that patients' records stay up to date and that insurance companies reimburse healthcare providers.
Graduates entering the field of medical coding can find ample employment opportunities in various medical settings. Medical coders can also earn a higher degree or complete certification to become medical or health services managers, a job that earns a median annual salary of $104,280, according to the BLS.
Medical coders earned a median annual salary of $44,090 in 2020, according to the BLS. Salaries differ by setting, education level, location, and experience. The lowest 10% of earners take home less than $28,800 a year, while the top 10% make more than $73,370.
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As an assistant professor of nursing and entrepreneur with nearly twenty years of varied nursing experience, Brandy Gleason teaches within a prelicensure nursing program and coaches students. Brandy brings additional expertise as a bedside nurse and leader, having held roles at the managerial and senior leadership levels. Her passion and area of research centers around coaching nurses and nursing students to build resilience and avoid burnout. Brandy is an avid change agent when it comes to creating environments that contribute to the wellbeing of students.
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