There’s no denying that healthcare careers are complicated. Healthcare professionals attempt to understand, interpret and diagnose problems in the complex human body. Even a health information technician (HIT) career, which doesn’t involve working directly with patients, requires a strong understanding of the various codes assigned to different medical diagnoses.
There are several different careers in HIT to choose from. If you’re looking for an in-demand option that you could launch with less than two years of schooling, medical coding might be the perfect fit.* But you can help but wonder: Is medical coding hard?
Learning the ropes as a medical coder may not be a walk in the park, but it’s not rocket science, either. We asked experts in the field to provide their insights on the challenging aspects of mastering medical coding and what may not be as hard as you think.
What exactly is medical coding?
Medical coding is a step in the medical billing process that assigns codes to insurance claims from a patient visiting a healthcare facility. In simple terms, whenever a patient goes to a clinic or hospital for any reason, the visit is assigned specific medical codes to help track the reason for the visit.
This system of medical coding ensures that healthcare visits are categorized correctly when it comes time to bill and process insurance claims. The medical coder is the person responsible for allocating those specific medical codes (CPT, ICD and HCPCS) to each claim.
Is medical coding hard?
“It is like learning a foreign language,” says Professor Bonnie Moore, RHIT and HIT program coordinator at Rasmussen College. “What makes it difficult is that there are three major coding systems and each of them is different. So you are learning three foreign languages.”
Learning a foreign language may seem daunting, but it’s definitely not impossible. Certain aspects take some trial and error, according to Meredith Kroll, clinic coder at Ridgeview Medical Center.
“At times it was harder than I thought, particularly the E/M coding,” Kroll says. But she emphasizes that the challenging parts of learning medical coding are vital to later success on the job. “I think my job now is easier than my coding schooling, which means I was well prepared for my new career.”
Kroll advises new coders to keep trying and asking questions about anything that doesn't make sense. “It will eventually click,” she says. “Once I actually started working as a coder, I was really thankful for all the questions that I asked while learning.”
What are the most challenging aspects of medical coding?
Human anatomy has a lot of gray areas, but medical coding is black and white. It can be challenging to transform cloudy and complex medical symptoms into clear, discernible codes.
“One of the most challenging parts of the job is just learning the quirks of the computer system and how to get around them,” Kroll says. It takes diligence and attention-to-detail to be a successful medical coder. Kroll explains she kept thorough notes throughout her training and created her own set of ‘guidelines.’ Her company has already asked her to utilize her notes for training future coders into their organization.
Another challenging aspect is keeping up with industry changes. Moore points out that medical coding is in a constant state of flux. The changes in governance and healthcare regulations all impact coding, and it is critical for coding professionals to stay on top of these changes to avoid documenting inaccurate information.
But these challenges are the reason medical coders are in such high demand. The hunt for efficient and accurate coders is fierce! “That is why there is more demand for educated and credentialed coders,” Moore explains. “The good news is that the pay increases with the more experience and credentialing you have.”
Can medical coding be fun?
Medical coding may be a challenge to learn at first, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a fun job in the long run. Many coders think of themselves as private investigators trying to crack a case. “Coding and billing is all about being a detective,” Moore says, adding that dissecting a patient’s medical record and even learning to read the medical records can be quite enjoyable.
“The daily work can be very entertaining,” Kroll says. “There are boring parts, like any job, but I try to mix up my tasks so I'm not doing the same thing all day long.” Kroll enjoys digging through provider documentation. “It's like a treasure hunt to look for the things I need to be able to code.”
And of course, coders get to see plenty of interesting medical stories coming across their desks. “It's very interesting to read some of the reasons that people come into the clinic—what kids have stuck in their ears or noses, or the stories behind people's sprained ankles,” Kroll adds.
Medical coding also isn’t as isolating as people may think. Kroll has met all the primary doctors she codes for and enjoys communicating with coworkers throughout the day. “I have found that most people who work in this field are fun and great to work with,” Moore concludes.
5 tips for success in medical coding
Medical coders are responsible for learning lots of information, and this job is not for everyone, according to Moore. It takes self-motivation, focus and diligence to make it as a medical coder.
If you think you’ve got what it takes, these top tips from our experts will help you achieve success in your coding studies:
- Enhance your learning with flashcards, note-taking, online quizzes and other supplemental educational materials. Practice and deep understanding is essential to the job.
- Make sure you actually grasp what you are learning. The bare minimum won’t be enough to pass the certification exam.
- Commit to keeping current with changes in the industry. To be successful in this field, you’ll have to be a lifelong learner.
- When you are sure that you understand something, read it one more time. This will ensure that you’ve retained your new knowledge and have a deeper understanding of the material.
- Study and review daily. This will help you translate information from your short-term memory to the long term.
Mastering medical coding can be done
If you’re willing to put in some work at the front end, you can overcome the challenges of medical coding. Your reward for all that work is a satisfying healthcare career that is critical to medical facilities. “The schooling isn't easy, but it is well worth it in the long run,” Kroll says.
By putting in the work to learn the “foreign language” of medical coding, you could be setting yourself up for the career of your dreams. “Becoming a coder is a great career choice that offers a lot of flexibility in schedule and location,” Kroll explains. “I just started my first coding position two months ago and am already working from home, setting my own hours and earning a decent wage.”
Is medical coding right for you?
Medical coding may not be simple, but it’s not impossible. Earning a medical coding degree is a worthwhile step to teach you the ropes of medical coding and prepare you for the job market.
With all the changes in the healthcare world, medical coders are in high demand and the job opportunities are expected to continue growing faster than average.
So is medical coding hard? It can be. But should that stop you from pursuing this rewarding healthcare career? Not at all! Learn more about the demand for these professionals in our article: Why the Medical Field is Struggling to Fill Medical Coding Jobs.
*Completion time is dependent on transfer credits accepted and courses completed each term.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in February 2014. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2016.