If you’re looking for a job with good long-term prospects, a career in the healthcare field could be a good fit.
As of late 2017, healthcare became the largest job source in the United States. The high demand for qualified healthcare professionals can mean more job security and room to grow than in other fields. This article will help describe what your career would be like in one of the fastest-growing jobs in the healthcare industry—as a medical secretary who specializes in coding.
Read on to get a behind the scenes look at the duties of a medical coder.
What Is a Medical Coder?
Medical coders update patient records with standardized information needed for data management and billing purposes. Every time a doctor, nurse, or other healthcare provider performs a service, a code needs to be assigned to each diagnosis and procedure. For example, let’s assume you’re a medical coder reviewing the health record of a patient who comes into a medical office for an X-ray.
Once the technician completes the X-ray, he or she will notate the procedure on the patient’s chart. A doctor will then examine the image to diagnose the source of the injury, whether it’s a fracture or simply a sprain, and may also prescribe treatment, such as a sling or a cast. It’ll be your job to read these notes and apply the appropriate codes for the X-ray, the doctor’s examination, the diagnosis, and any treatment provided.
The specific codes you assign will determine how the medical office bills the insurance company for the patient’s visit. Your main job tasks will include analyzing medical charts and assigning codes.
Your codes will help when patients need their insurance company to cover a claim, and proper coding will help to ensure the provider is reimbursed by the insurer in a timely manner.
It's important to understand that medical billing and medical coding are two different job functions. Some offices may have one person perform both tasks, though larger facilities may employ separate billing and coding specialists.
In cases where the work is divided into two jobs, the medical coder will primarily focus on updating patient health records and verifying they are properly coded, while the medical biller will spend much of the day submitting and following up on claims with insurance companies.
Medical coders may be known by different job titles. Other names for medical coding jobs include:
- Medical coding specialist
- Diagnostic coder
- Medical coding analyst
- Clinical coding officer
- Medical coding auditor
Why Consider a Career as a Medical Coder?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment of medical secretaries, including medical coders, will grow 22% between 2016 and 2026, which is much faster than the average for all professions. This strong job outlook can make it easier for qualified coders to find work.
The BLS reports that medical secretaries earned a mean (average) salary of $34,610 per year as of May 2017. However, attaining industry certification, such as the Certified Professional Coder (CPC®) credential from the AAPC, along with gaining years of experience, may lead to higher earnings. According to the 2017 AAPC Salary Survey, coders with an average of 13 years of experience and the CPC certification earned an average annual salary of $54,106.
To enter into the medical coding profession, you’ll first need your high school diploma, GED, or equivalent. Next, you’ll need to have relevant training, which generally means enrolling in a medical coding program. You may choose between a diploma or degree program, and between campus-based classes or online education.
You can earn a certificate or diploma in under a year, while an associate degree program may take a year and a half to two years to complete (both depending on the rate of the individual student). A diploma program can be an appealing choice if you want to start pursuing a medical coder career quickly, while an associate degree is a good option if you want to enhance your credentials or potentially enroll in a bachelor’s degree program at a later date.
Some programs will prepare you to earn industry certification, such as the CPC credential. To attain certification, you’ll have to take an exam administered by the certifying organization, achieve a passing score, and meet certain eligibility requirements. For example, it takes two years of on-the-job-experience or 80 contact hours of a coding preparation course and one year of work experience to achieve CPC status. New graduates who pass the exam will have a CPC Apprentice (CPC-A) designation, which can be updated to full CPC with proof of experience.
Once you’ve graduated and earned your certification (if you’ve opted to do so), you can start applying for medical coder jobs at hospitals, doctor’s offices, and other healthcare facilities. Let’s take a look at what your workday is likely to entail.
Start of the Work Day
Your day will typically start with logging onto your computer and opening the various programs you need to perform your job. You’ll most likely have a company email account, one or more databases, and other software programs you deal with on a daily basis.
Once you’ve opened these applications, you’ll check for updated patient charts. You’ll have to prioritize the charts and choose which ones you’ll handle first. Your training will help you decide which charts are urgent, and which ones can wait.
Different employers may assign you different types of medical coding tasks. In a small practice, you might be responsible for processing all patient charts, while a large hospital may have you specialize in one area of coding. For example, you might work solely with inpatient surgeries or with outpatient surgeries, or you may work as an auditor who checks other coders’ work for accuracy.
Usually when you’re hired into a new role, you'll have an opportunity to expand and enhance your coding skills. However, most employers look for candidates with knowledge of multiple coding systems, as they typically need minimal training.
Coding mistakes can cost your employer money or delay reimbursement from insurers, so it’s important to have a careful system in place for coding each procedure. First, you should identify the type of claim you are handling.
Next, you have to consider who will be reading the codes you provide. Some will be used by the insurance company to process claims, while others may primarily be for internal use to help your office maintain accurate records.
This work requires a high level of organization along with a strong knowledge of medical terminology and an understanding of billing procedures.
Middle of the Work Day
After prioritizing your charts, you’ll spend most of your day performing a variety of coding tasks. In addition to assigning codes, you’ll be reviewing medical charts, taking notes, and possibly assisting with billing.
A large part of your day will take place in front of the computer, so your workstation should be set up in a way that helps to improve your efficiency and productivity.
There are tens of thousands of medical codes, so your employer doesn't expect you to memorize all of them.
Your employer will typically have expectations as to how many charts you’ll need to complete each day, so it’s important to manage your time wisely. If your job includes both coding and billing, you may want to experiment on ways to work more efficiently. Does it make sense to complete all of the coding first before switching to billing-related tasks, or is it faster to code and then bill for each patient visit as you work your way through the charts?
What Will Your Co-Workers Be Like?
The office structure will vary depending on where you work. If you are employed in a hospital system, you’ll likely work with other medical coders, and the billing team may be considered a separate department. However, if you work in a small office, you might be the only medical coding and billing employee on the team.
Hospital settings may seem more demanding because of the number of patients, but having fellow coders to share the workload can help keep things manageable. In addition, being able to learn from experienced coding staff can make it easier for a new medical coder to learn the ropes.
Smaller offices and private practices can also be a very appealing work environment, as the setting can make it easier to build relationships with other staff members and regular patients. You may also have an opportunity to learn other aspects of medical office work on the job, which can enhance your experience and qualifications.
End of the Work Day
At the end of the workday, once you’ve finished coding all of the patient charts, you’ll likely have a few tasks left to complete.
First, you'll want to save your work and log out of all your computer programs, and ensure any paper-based records are properly filed away. Due to patient privacy and confidentiality laws, you don’t want to leave health records visible to any unauthorized individuals who may walk past your desk.
If you are employed by a large healthcare facility that has coders working on multiple shifts, you may need to clear off your desk space if another medical coder will be working there on the next shift.
Finally, if any new charts have come in at the end of the day, you may want to review and prioritize them so that you’ll be one step ahead on the next day’s work.
Entering the Healthcare Field
Does a career as a medical coder sound appealing to you? If so, Ultimate Medical Academy can help you get started on your journey. You can start exploring our Medical Billing & Coding program.
If you’re unsure about what part of the healthcare field you want to join, or you want to know what else is out there, take our fun and informal UMA personality quiz.
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