Your 5-Step Guide to Become a Medical Coder
By Hope Rothenberg on 10/06/2023
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.
How to become a medical coder: 5 straightforward steps
Before we break down the steps, let’s explore why this role matters. Whenever you have a doctor’s appointment, the healthcare provider records notes about which procedures took place and what was diagnosed. Using their knowledge of thousands of medical codes, payment policies and government regulations, medical coders take medical records and code them in a standardized system for billing and insurance purposes.
Without them, the providers wouldn’t know what to charge for each procedure, and insurance companies wouldn’t be able to cover patient care properly. Now that you know a little more about the position, read ahead to learn how to become a medical coder.
Step 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.
Step 2: Complete medical coding training
Next, you’ll need to start training and learning 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. Many employers are seeking candidates with a postsecondary certificate, and some are requiring an associate degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).1
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 to other education options—in fact, the Medical Billing and Coding Certificate program at Rasmussen University can be completed in as few as nine months.2 Here’s a taste of some of the courses students take at a medical coding program:
Medical coding courses
Here are some of the essential medical coding courses you can expect to take in a medical coding program.
- Coding Foundations
- ICD-CM Coding
- ICD-PCS Coding
- Ambulatory Coding
- Health Information Law and Ethics
- Health Information Pathophysiology and Pharmacology
Gaining practical training and a solid understanding of the field 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.
Step 3: Look into Medical Coding certification
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.
Employers may prefer candidates who have earned medical coding certification, according to the BLS.1 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 to choose from.
Medical coding certifications:
- Certified Professional Coder (CPC®) *requires industry experience
- Certified Coding Associate (CCA®)
- Certified Coding Specialist (CCS®)
- Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT®)2
Once you gain some experience around other professional coders in the medical field, you may decide you’d like to 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.
Step 4: Brush up on in-demand medical billing and coding skills
Before you start applying for medical coding jobs, it’s 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:3
- 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 certificate program. In addition to this technical training, there are some soft skills that help medical coders succeed.
Top transferable skills for medical coders:3
- 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.
Step 5: Find a job
The next step to becoming a medical coder is to land your first job.
There are a number of settings where medical coding professionals work, so adjust your search as needed. Once you get your foot in the door and start gaining experience, you can begin considering future advancement opportunities. There’s an entire cluster of health information careers you can potentially grow into from here, so keep an eye to the future as well.
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.
Learn more about the career and the training ahead by visiting the Rasmussen University Medical Billing and Coding program page.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [career information accessed September 2023]. www.bls.gov/ooh/. This represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Graduates of Rasmussen's Health Information Technician Associate's degree program meet the educational requirements to sit for the RHIT®exam BUT not graduates of Rasmussen's Medical Billing and Coding Certificate program.
3Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 184,525 medical records and health information technician job postings Sep. 01, 2021 – Aug. 31, 2022).
CPC Certified Professional Coder is a registered trademark of American Academy Holdings, LLC LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY NORTH CAROLINA Suite F 2233 South Presidents Drive Salt Lake City UTAH 84120
CCA, CCS and RHIT are registered trademarks of American Health Information Management Association, Inc. CORPORATION ILLINOIS 233 North Michigan Avenue Suite 2150 Chicago ILLINOIS 606015519
CPT is a registered trademark of the American Medical Association Intellectual Property Services, 515 N. State Street, Chicago, Illinois 60610
Microsoft is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation. 1 Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally written by Will Erstad and published in 2020. It has since been updated for 2023.