How to Become a Medical Coder: Career Guide

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Are you interested in a health care career that doesn’t require years of medical school or a hefty student loan debt? Do you have a keen eye for detail and a passion for working behind the scenes to ensure patients receive the care they need? If so, a career as a medical coder might be the perfect fit for you.

In this career guide, we explore what medical coders do, the benefits of working in this field, the essential skills you’ll need, education requirements, and more.

What Does a Medical Coder Do?

At its core, medical coding is an administrative role that plays a crucial part in the health care system. Medical coders are responsible for managing patient records using a numerical coding system, reviewing clinical documentation and doctor’s notes, and translating diagnoses, procedures, and supplies into medical codes that can be submitted to insurance providers.

Some of the day-to-day tasks medical coders perform include:

Through their daily work, medical coders play a vital role in ensuring the continuity of patient care, streamlining communication between providers, improving public health trends, aiding epidemiological research, measuring population-wide health care outcomes, and determining the necessity of health care services.

Medical Coding vs. Medical Billing

Though medical coding and medical billing may sound like similar professions, they play two distinct roles in the health care system.

Medical coding involves translating medical records into numerical codes for billing purposes. These codes act as a universal way to quantify health care visits and make physician’s notes less abstract for insurance carriers and other health care providers.

Once a patient’s codes are entered into the electronic medical records (EMR) system and used to submit claims, medical billers then handle the financial transactions between insurance carriers and health care providers.

Benefits of Working in Medical Coding

There are many compelling reasons to consider a career in medical coding, not least of all the opportunity to help patients.

Essential Medical Coder Skills

While anyone with an interest in health care and a data-oriented brain can become a medical coder, there are some key skills that are essential to the role:

A MEDICAL TERMINOLOGY COURSE IS VALUABLE TO YOUR CAREER

Taking a medical terminology course is a great first step to equip you with the skills and knowledge you’ll need to be successful.

Why You Need a Medical Terminology Course

Medical Coder Education Requirements

While you can start as a medical coder with a high school diploma or equivalent, employers often prefer candidates with postsecondary certificates. Many professionals in this field obtain certification through organizations such as the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) or the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA). These organizations offer a range of certifications tailored to different health care settings and expertise levels. Some certificate programs even require candidates to have at least one year of entry-level experience in the field to enroll.

It is typically not a requirement, but some aspiring medical coders may benefit from an associate’s degree; however, employers tend to prefer candidates with certificates over degrees, due to the rigorous credentialing exam process.

Where Do Medical Coders Work?

Medical coders can find employment in a range of inpatient and outpatient settings, including:

The greatest majority of medical coders work in hospitals, but the type of certification you hold may influence the roles and work environments available to you:

Medical Coder Salary Expectations

A medical coder’s salary can vary based on factors such as experience, credentials, and location.

The median salary is around $55,000 (ca. 2023), with the potential to earn over $80,000. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth in this field is projected at an average rate of 7%, creating approximately 14,900 new jobs per year over the next decade.

Top-paying industries for medical coders include insurance carriers and scientific research and development services, especially in New Jersey, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, California, and Connecticut.

How to Become a Medical Coder

If you feel passionate about helping patients and improving the quality of medical care from behind the scenes, follow these recommended steps to start your medical coding career:

  1. Self-assessment: Ask yourself if you’re genuinely interested in health care, and if working with medical staff inspires you. It also helps if you have an aptitude for — but not necessarily prior knowledge of — prerequisite subjects such as anatomy and medical terminology.
  2. Talk to medical coders: Reach out to experienced medical coders to gain insights into the profession and confirm that it aligns with your career goals. Reach out to organizations such as The Coding Network, explore community forums, and even contact local hospitals to inquire about informational interviews.
  3. Build your educational foundation: At a minimum, you should have your high school diploma or equivalent. You can also consider pursuing an associate’s degree or a coding prep program to better prepare for certification exams.
  4. Choose a certification: Decide which medical coding certification suits your career goals. Popular certifications include Certified Professional Coder (CPC), Certified Outpatient Coder (COC), Certified Inpatient Coder (CIC), Certified Risk Adjustment Coder (CRC), and more offered by AAPC, AHIMA, and other organizations.
  5. Complete training: Enroll in a medical coding training program that focuses on the reimbursement system used in your chosen health care setting (e.g., doctor’s office, hospital, insurance company, etc.).
  6. Earn your certificate: To become certified, you’ll need to demonstrate mastery of anatomy, pathophysiology, medical terminology, and medical coding guidelines. Once certified, you’ll likely gain apprenticeship status or be ready for an entry-level position.
  7. Network: Join your local AAPC chapter and connect with other coding professionals, mentors, and peers. Networking can open doors to job opportunities and ongoing learning.

By following a path similar to the one described here, you’ll set yourself up for a rewarding career as a medical coder, contributing to the health care industry’s efficiency and patient care while enjoying personal, professional, and financial rewards. Learn about the benefits of pursuing health care professional development opportunities in our eBook, “Why a Medical Terminology Course Is Valuable to Your Career.”

Frequently Asked Questions

What does a medical coder do?

Medical coders play a vital role in ensuring the quality and continuity of patient care. They are responsible for managing patient records using a numerical coding system, reviewing clinical documentation and doctor’s notes, and translating diagnoses, procedures, and supplies into medical codes that can be submitted to insurance providers.

Do medical coders work with patients?

No, medical coders do not work directly with patients. Their role is strictly administrative, translating physicians’ notes into codes which are used to file claims with insurance providers.

Do medical coders need a degree?

It is typically not a requirement, but some aspiring medical coders may benefit from an associate’s degree. However, employers tend to prefer candidates with certificates over degrees, due to the rigorous credentialing exam process. Many professionals in this field obtain certification through organizations such as the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) or the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA).

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