How to Become a Medical Coder

Medical coders translate a patient's medical records into medical codes. Explore what it takes to become a medical coder.
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  • Medical coders turn medical records into standardized codes for easier communication.
  • Medical coding certification may be required for employment or additional job opportunities.
  • The medical coding certification you choose may affect the roles and work settings you qualify for.
  • Experience, location, certification, and work setting can impact your salary and opportunities.

Medical coding can be an ideal healthcare path if you have strong analytical skills, enjoy working with numbers, and pay close attention to detail.

Medical coders make sense of medical documentation, using codes to standardize patient records for healthcare and insurance providers. You need certification to become a medical coder.

Learn more about how to become a medical coder, what to expect from the certification process, and job opportunities in the industry.

4 Steps to Becoming a Medical Coder

  1. Earn a high school diploma or the equivalent.
  2. Determine which medical coding certification you want to earn, such as the certified coding associate (CCA) or the certified professional coder (CPC).
  3. Prepare for credentialing exams. While not required, an associate degree in medical coding or a coding prep program can help prepare you for the credentialing exams.
  4. Take and pass the certification exam to earn your medical coding certification.
  5. Start your career as a medical biller or coder.

What Is a Medical Coder?

Medical coders translate patients' medical records into universal healthcare diagnosis and procedure codes. They may also ensure the accuracy of the codes that providers assign to visits and procedures. These professionals help improve communication between healthcare teams, electronic health records (EHR) systems, insurance companies, and other payers.

Medical coders must also ensure the accuracy and privacy of records. Patient records receive periodic audits to ensure the accuracy of the medical codes. Depending on where you work, the audits may be conducted by an internal or external auditor.

Medical billers and coders have different roles, but they do work closely together. Coders make it easier for healthcare billing professionals to assign values to medical services, create billing statements, and track payments.

Medical Coder Responsibilities

  • Review patients' charts and verify the codes for procedures, treatments, and diagnoses.
  • Effectively communicate with the healthcare team.
  • Retrieve data from records for insurance purposes.
  • Follow legal procedures to keep patients' records confidential.
  • Act as liaison between billing offices and healthcare providers.

Medical Coder Skills

  • Analytical Skills: Medical coders need to think critically when they review patient records for healthcare and insurance purposes.
  • Attention to Detail: Medical coders must pay close attention to the details to avoid errors.
  • Medical Terminology: Coders need medical terminology skills to understand and translate medical records into numerical code.
  • Technical Skills: Medical coders need computer software skills and the ability to use the most up-to-date coding systems.
  • Ethics: Coders must follow ethical guidelines to maintain patient confidentiality, which is an essential part of healthcare.

Popular Online Medical Coding Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Medical Coding Certifications

While some employers accept a high school diploma and several years of experience, many expect you to earn certification. These certifications also prepare you for advancement opportunities and increased earnings.

Though not required, the institutions below offer programs to help prepare you for these exams. Some certifications require work experience instead of foundational training courses.

The American Academy of Professional Coders

The American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) provides certification and networking opportunities for medical coding professionals. The AAPC offers five certifications for medical coders:

  • Certified Professional Coder (CPC): Professionals who earn the CPC certification specialize in coding services in a physician office and advanced practice provider setting. They hold expertise in skills such as documentation review and abstract professional provider encounters.
  • Certified Outpatient Coding (COC): This certification is designed for medical coders who work in an outpatient hospital or ambulatory surgical center settings. The exam tests candidates' competencies in coding skills related to hospital or emergency care work.
  • Certified Inpatient Coding (CIC): Coders who pursue their career in hospital and facility inpatient coding take the CIC exam, which evaluates test-takers' skills in ICD-10-CM and ICD-10-PCS coding.
  • Certified Risk Adjustment Coder (CRC): The CRC credential ensures that coders can determine accurate risk scores for patients, which means that providers get the funding they need for high-risk patients.

Advanced Certifications

  • Certified Professional Medical Auditor (CPMA): Professionals with this advanced certification hold expertise in medical documentation, scope and statistical sampling methodologies, and quality assurance and coding risk analysis.
  • Certified Documentation Expert Outpatient (CDEO): Coders can apply for this certification if they have plenty of experience in outpatient services documentation and quality measure reporting.
  • Certified Physician Practice Manager (CPPM): This "next step" credential is for people who have worked in multiple different healthcare fields and want to specialize in physician practice management.
  • Certified Professional Compliance Officer (CPCO): Coders can pursue this credential if they want to certify their expertise in management of a healthcare compliance program.

American Health Information Management Association

The American Health Information Management Association offers the certified coding associate (CCA) and the certified coding specialist (CCS) credentials. The CCA is for those just entering the profession, while the CCS demonstrates mastery in the field.

Practice Management Institute

The Practice Management Institute offers a certified medical coder (CMC) credential. This certification is for coders in outpatient settings. To be eligible to earn this certification, you must have one year of experience as an outpatient medical coder or complete foundational coding courses.

Do You Need a Degree to Be a Medical Coder?

Medical records specialists and medical coders typically need a postsecondary certificate for employment. Many employers expect or prefer you to have medical coder certification as well.

Employers may hire you with only a high school diploma with the expectation that you earn certification in the near future. Some employers might require you to hold an associate degree.

Certificate Programs vs. Degree Programs

Certificate Programs

  • Colleges and universities offer online and on-campus certificate programs, usually lasting a year or less.
  • Certificate programs typically do not require general education courses, instead focusing on healthcare and job-specific courses.
  • Certificate programs usually do not cost as much as a college degree.
  • Students can take certification exams after they finish their programs.

Degree Programs

  • Colleges may offer associate degree programs in medical coding, which typically last two years.
  • Some schools also offer four-year bachelor's programs that cover medical coding, although these degree programs are sometimes called health information management.
  • Degrees usually require general education courses as part of the curriculum.
  • Degrees may cost more than certificate programs since they require more credits.
  • Students can take certification exams after they graduate.

Medical Coder Salary: How Much Does a Medical Coder Make?

Medical coders made an average salary of $51,090 in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That equals an average hourly wage of about $24.56. The highest 10th percentile of medical coders earned more than $75,000, while the lowest 10th percentile made around $32,000.

Salaries vary due to various factors, including industry, location, experience, specialization, and in-person vs remote work.

Job seekers can look forward to joining a growing industry. The BLS projects that jobs for medical coders could increase by 8% from 2022 to 2032, which is faster than average growth.

Average Medical Coder Salaries in the Industries that Employ the Most Medical Coders

Although all medical coders work in healthcare, the specific industry in which they work can impact their salaries.

The top-earning industries for medical coders include general medical and surgical hospitals and management of companies and enterprises. Review how the six industries with the highest medical biller and coder employment compare in terms of annual salaries.

Keep in mind that the highest-paying industries aren't necessarily the industries with the highest employment for medical billers and coders.

Annual Average Wage for Medical Billers and Coders for Top Employers of Medical Billers and Coders
Industry Employment Annual Mean wage Difference in National and Industry Annual Mean Wage
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals 47,980 $54,210 $3,120
Offices of Physicians 36,070 $42,800 -$8,290
Management of Companies and Enterprises 18,110 $54,880 $3,790
Nursing Care Facilities (Skilled Nursing Facilities) 9,170 $44,350 -$6,740
Accounting, Tax Preparation, Bookkeeping, and Payroll Services 7,670 $51,060 -$30
Outpatient Care Centers 7,110 $53,520 $2,430
Source: BLS

Medical Coder Salaries by State

Location is another factor that influences salaries. Pay can vary whether you work in a big city with a higher cost of living or a smaller town with a lower cost of living. The state in which you work also impacts your salary.

Discover the five states that pay the highest annual salaries for medical coders and the difference between the state vs. national average salary.

  1. New Jersey (+$17,410 per year)
  2. California (+$14,760 per year)
  3. District of Columbia (+$12,650 per year)
  4. Hawaii (+$10,100 per year)
  5. Connecticut (+$9,320 per year)

View salary data for all states

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Salaries of Medical Coders by State
State Average Annual Salary
New Jersey $68,500
California $65,850
District of Columbia $63,740
Hawaii $61,190
Connecticut $60,410
Massachusetts $58,580
Washington $58,480
Maryland $57,940
Minnesota $57,320
Alaska $56,210
New York $55,400
Oregon $54,030
Colorado $53,410
Virginia $52,580
Wyoming $52,330
South Carolina $52,050
Wisconsin $52,010
Illinois $51,450
Rhode Island $51,410
Utah $50,230
South Dakota $49,640
Maine $49,220
Missouri $49,020
Indiana $48,890
Tennessee $48,890
North Dakota $48,590
Vermont $48,330
Pennsylvania $48,070
Idaho $48,060
Louisiana $47,870
Ohio $47,410
Delaware $47,380
Florida $47,320
Georgia $47,200
Iowa $47,180
North Carolina $46,890
New Mexico $46,670
Montana $46,530
Oklahoma $46,350
Nebraska $46,300
New Hampshire $46,250
Michigan $45,920
Arizona $45,610
Kentucky $45,180
Kansas $44,970
Texas $44,680
Nevada $42,890
West Virginia $42,470
Arkansas $40,410
Alabama $40,250
Mississippi $39,470

Frequently Asked Questions About How to Become a Medical Coder

Is medical coding a stressful job?

Medical coding requires close attention to accurately translate patients' medical records. Coders may also find themselves subject to audits. However, medical coding professionals may thrive in this detail-oriented environment and find the job more energizing than stressful.

Is medical coding hard?

Medical coding can be hard to learn and master. Coders need to know the medical terminology and codes for many diagnoses and procedures. They also need the analytical abilities to translate medical notes into code.

Medical coding jobs also come with scheduling challenges. Professionals may need to work inconvenient hours, including weekends and shift work.

How long does it take to get AAPC certified?

It takes 5-10 months to become AAPC certified. If you decide to enroll in AAPC medical billing and coding courses online, it can take 4-8 months to complete the courses and then an additional 1-2 months to study for the certification exam.

Is it worth getting into medical coding?

Medical coding can be a worthwhile career for those who want to work in the healthcare industry, but don't necessarily want to invest the time and money in a college degree.

The ultimate answer to whether medical coding is worth it depends on each individual. Think about your salary and professional goals to determine if medical coding is the right path for you.

How can you get into medical coding without experience?

Aspiring medical coders can get into the industry without experience as long as they possess the right certification. Most employers require a certified professional coder (CPC) certification.

The CPC certification process involves online training courses and an examination. As coders gain more experience during their careers, they can pursue better pay and more opportunities.

Page last reviewed on October 13, 2023 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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