How to Become a Medical Coder in 6 Steps
By Hope Rothenberg on 02/08/2024
You’re interested in healthcare, but you’re not interested in direct patient care. You certainly have options outside of a clinical setting, but the behind-the-scenes nature of the position and the daily duties of a medical coder make it seem like the perfect entry point for you.
These healthcare professionals play an important role in the medical services ecosystem as they help process and organize the massive amounts of patient data and billing data produced every day. This complex process helps keep funding flowing, improves patient experiences and can even contribute to healthcare research.
While that sounds like a solid line of work, you need to gain a better understanding of the road ahead before committing to this career path. To help with that, we’ve compiled a variety of important information to break down the process and provide you with a guide on how to become a medical coder.
6 Steps to becoming a medical coder
1. Meet the basic prerequisites
First things first: To become a medical coder, you will need a high school diploma or equivalent. You also will need to pass a background check. Applicants with a criminal history involving drug offenses or sexual crimes will most likely be turned away.
2. Complete medical coding training
Next, you’ll need to start training to learn the ins and outs of medical coding systems and how the medical billing process works. While there are no formal education requirements for those interested in becoming medical coders or medical billers, this is a step that can make you a more appealing candidate for employment. In fact, some employers may specifically seek candidates with a postsecondary certificate or associate degree.
Pursuing formal education is a smart step for those who want to enter the field of medical billing and coding with a solid foundation of knowledge. Even better, these programs are comparatively short compared to other education options. The Medical Billing and Coding Certificate program at Rasmussen University can be completed in as few as nine months.1
This efficient option means aspiring medical coders can fit this training into their busy schedules. It’s an ideal pathway for working adults with financial and family obligations that are looking to get started in the health information field.
Sample medical coding coursework:
Of course, specific coursework varies by program. Here are a few sample courses from the Medical Billing and Coding Certificate program at Rasmussen University. Or, if you want, you can check out all the courses on the Medical Billing and Coding Course Catalog page.
In this course you'll review the coding classification systems, the use of code books and gain hands-on experience with electronic encoders. You'll also learn the different applications for the various coding classification systems, along with billing and reimbursement practices.
Health Information Law and Ethics
This class focuses on analyzing the impact of the country's legal system and healthcare laws, regulations, processes and ethical considerations on health information. You'll develop the ability to identify and respond to potential ethical dilemmas.
Medical Billing and Coding Practicum
Another core course, you'll practice the practical application of previously acquired knowledge and skills through clinical case scenarios and sample medical records. You'll also gain competence in determining a case's principal diagnosis and sequencing multiple diagnoses for data collection and reimbursement.
Although training is essential, the barrier to entry into the health information field isn’t as high as other healthcare careers. Gaining a solid understanding of medical codes and the field at large will allow you to hit the ground running as a certified professional coder as soon as you land your first medical coding job. You can even complete your medical coding training online, making this step an achievable option even if you’re already working elsewhere.
3. Look into Medical Billing and Coding certificate programs
Graduating from a medical coding certificate program is an impressive accomplishment. Once you’ve done so, you can consider optional certifications offered by numerous organizations. Just like completing formal education, employers may prefer candidates who have earned medical coding certification. And understandably so—earning additional certification shows employers you’re dedicated to the role and have demonstrated many of the important skills required to succeed on the job. The choice to specialize is ultimately yours, but it’s a choice worth careful consideration.
There are a few medical coding certifications medical coders might want to consider.
Common medical coding certifications:
Certified Coding Associate (CCA®)
The CCA designation has been a nationally recognized standard of achievement in the health information management (HIM) field since 2002, according to the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA®). Earning the CCA credential demonstrates coding competency across all settings from hospitals to physician practices, exhibiting a level of commitment and professional capability highly valued by employers.
This exam is the listed option for graduates of Rasmussen’s Medical Billing and Coding program.
Certified Professional Coder (CPC®)
This medical coding certification exam proves your expertise in physician and non-physician provider documentation review, abstract professional provider encounters, coding proficiency with CPT®, HCPCS Level II, ICD-10-CM and compliance and regulatory requirements for physician services, according to the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC®).
Certified Coding Specialist (CCS®)
The CCS credential demonstrates a practitioner's tested skills in data quality and accuracy as well as mastery of coding proficiency, according to the AHIMA. This certification is considered a natural progression for professionals experienced in coding inpatient and outpatient records, and proves expertise in the ICD-10-CM, ICD-10-PCS and CPT® coding systems—as well as medical terminology, disease processes and pharmacology concepts.
The credentials listed above are only a few of the options available. Once you gain some experience around other professional coders in the medical field, you may decide you’d like to further specialize your coding career. If so, you might consider pursuing a specialty medical coding certification in an area such as ambulatory care, anesthesia, family practice, general surgery or many others in the healthcare industry.
4. Brush up on in-demand medical billing and coding skills
After you've earned your desired certifications—and before you start applying for medical coding jobs—it will be helpful to know exactly what employers are looking for so you can be prepared and put your best foot forward with a well-tailored resume. Being an effective medical coder requires a balance of hard and soft skills.
We used real-time job analysis software to examine over 184,000 job postings for medical records specialists and health information technicians over the past year.3 This data helped us identify the top skills employers are seeking in medical coding job candidates. Here’s what we found.
Commonly sought-after skills and knowledge for medical coders:2
- Medical coding
- Medical billing
- Customer service
- Medical records
- Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
- CPT® coding
- Medical terminology/anatomy
- Microsoft® Office
This list may seem intimidating at first glance, but rest assured that these are precisely the types of skills taught in a medical coding program. In addition to this technical training, there are some soft skills that help medical coders succeed.
Top transferable skills for medical coders:2
- Attention to detail
- Problem solving
If you can identify with some of the traits above, you may be a natural fit for the field. Your medical coding training will help you round out your skills so you’re prepped for success. Rasmussen University's certificate program will enhance your skills in critical thinking, digital fluency, information literacy, communication, diversity and teamwork and ethics and professional responsibility, in addition to all of your health information studies.
5. Choose a setting to work in
With all these possible pathways and specialization options, you may be asking yourself: Where do medical coders work? It's easy to assume the answer to this question is hospitals, but there are several other settings a medical coder or medical biller might work.
The simple answer is that a certified medical coder may be employed anywhere that provides medical services. This can include hospitals, clinics, urgent care facilities, nursing homes, treatment centers and more. Some insurance agencies employ medical coders to handle patient claims from the other side of the table, verifying the accuracy of incoming claims for medical billers. And some law firms employ medical coders to help identify billing fraud. Here's a more comprehensive list of some potential job settings.
Places that employ medical coders:
- Office-based physician practices
- Health clinics
- Nursing homes
- Home health agencies
- Mental health facilities
- Public health agencies
- Pharmaceutical companies
- Law firms
- Insurance companies
- Health product vendors
Some of these possibilities may seem out of place, but remember: Medical coding professionals can be employed anywhere that provides medical services or handles patient data, and that encompasses a lot of different places in today's world—especially as the healthcare field to continues to grow and evolve. Rather than let it overwhelm you, use it as an opportunity to find a role that's even more tailored to your specific interests.
6. Find a medical coding job
The next step to becoming a medical coder is to land your first job.
As you now know, there are a number of settings where medical coding professionals work. Once you determine your preferences, you can adjust your search as needed—and help narrow down some options. Searching for a job isn't always easy, but there are a number of resources that can help you land the job of your dreams.
If you choose to pursue your certification at Rasmussen University, you'll have access to robust career services throughout the duration of your career. Turn to this comprehensive tools and resource hub—in addition to a designated career services advisor—to help successfully manage your medical coding job search. The following job search services are available to students and alumni alike.
Rasmussen University job search services and resources:
- Updating and revising your resume, cover letter and references
- Mock interviews
- Workshops and webinars
- Career fairs
- Networking strategies and tactics
- Career plan development
- Access to Handshake and Hiration
- Entry into Rasmussen's online employment database
As you search for a role in the field, remember that becoming a medical coder isn't just about checking the boxes to land the first position you're offered—it's about finding a role you'll love and enjoy doing, day in and day out.
6. Manage the day-to-day demands
Once you have the opportunity to put your training to use in a medical coding role, you've officially become a medical coder. Given the various requirements to becoming a medical coder, you may be wondering: Is Medical Coding Stressful?
The short answer is that there's no single answer. It all depends on your work environment, how you handle potential stressors and how great of a fit your role is for you.
Given that medical coding is a productivity-based position, you may find that the most stressful part of the job is keeping up with productivity demands. On any given workday, a medical coder typically has a certain number of charts or CPT (current procedural terminology) codes to enter into the system.
Staying on top of these daily data entry quotas as new cases and patients continually pop up is a big part of the day-to-day demands of a medical coder, and becoming one means preparing to meet those expectations.
The good news is that once you get your foot in the door and start gaining experience, you can begin considering alternative and future advancement opportunities. From switching to a new healthcare setting to choosing a specific specialization or transitioning to a different health information career, there are plenty of options as you begin to hone in and find what works for you—but you won't know until you begin.
Take the first step toward becoming a medical coder
Now that you’re more familiar with the path to becoming a medical coder, why wait? There’s no better time than now to join the ranks of the growing medical field and feel the ultimate satisfaction of a career that allows you to help others. Check out our article, "Breaking Down the Medical Coder Job Description".
Learn more about the career and the training ahead by visiting the Rasmussen University Medical Billing and Coding program page.
1Completion time is dependent on transfer credits accepted and the number of courses completed each term.
2Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 184,525 medical records and health information technician job postings Sep. 01, 2021 – Aug. 31, 2022).
AAPC® and American Academy of Professional Coders are registered trademarks of American Academy Holdings, LLC
AHIMA® is a registered trademark of American Health Information Management Association
CPC® is a registered trademark of American Academy Holdings, LLC
CCA®, CCS®, and RHIT® are registered trademarks of American Health Information Management Association
CPT® is a registered trademark of American Medical Association
Microsoft Office® is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally written by Will Erstad and published in 2020. It has since been updated for 2024.