What Does a Medical Coder Do? Decoding the Details
As the use of electronic health records (EHRs) continues its steady growth, the need for medical coders and other health information professionals shows no sign of easing. Employment for these fast-growing fields was projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to grow by an impressive 13 percent from 2016 to 2026—a rate higher than the average projected growth in employment across all occupations.*
That’s all great to see—but if you’re looking to get started in this specialized healthcare field, then you’re probably wondering what exactly a medical coder does, among other things. In this article, we’ll dive into the duties of medical coding professionals and what it takes to become one.
How important are medical coders?
With these strong employment growth projections, you might be wondering where medical coders fit into the healthcare industry. Medical coding professionals play a key role in ensuring a healthcare provider operates profitably.
Every time a patient visits a facility, they leave a trail of services, treatments and diagnostic procedures. Medical coders are responsible for translating that trail by using a physician or healthcare providers’ documentation and notes to provide a uniform set of codes used as a basis for billing and cataloging information. This may seem small, but medical coders are an integral part of ensuring the procedures and treatments patients receive are correctly billed. This keeps the financial gears moving for healthcare providers. But it’s not just that—coded medical information creates masses of data that can open up areas of opportunity for public health researchers and healthcare providers.
These folks need to rely on a vast knowledge of medical codes, payment policies and government regulations. The BLS reports that as adaptation of EHR systems becomes more common, demand for medical coders and health information professionals will remain steady.
What exactly do medical coders do?
Decoding exactly what a medical coder or health information tech does day-to-day might seem complex at first, but their primary duties can be characterized relatively simply. They:
- Review records for accuracy, timeliness and completion
- Assign diagnoses and codes for care, statistics and billing
- Analyze patient information for relevant prior conditions so data can be coded correctly
The details surrounding those duties are a little more complex, though. For instance, medical coders rely on the 10th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) as a basis for their work. That system contains thousands of codes to match an enormous amount of potential medical scenarios.
Who shouldn’t consider coding and health information careers?
There’s plenty to like about this career, but your work environment matters. Medical coding and health information jobs are not an ideal fit for those who want to work directly with patients—there’s no dramatic healthcare heroism in this role. A health information professional’s career is office work and includes lots of time in front of a computer monitor, so steer clear if that doesn’t appeal to you. Depending on the employer, you may be able to find medical coding positions that allow you to work remotely as well.
Work schedule is another important area to consider. Most technicians work full time and maintain fairly regular office hours, though some who work in hospitals that are open at all hours may work evening or overnight shifts, the BLS says.
Where do medical coders work?
Busy hospital or quiet outpatient's office? No matter what your ideal work environment is, the good news is that medical coding jobs can be found in a variety of healthcare-related settings. After meeting employer requirements by completing courses in medical terminology, health laws, anatomy and other interesting areas of study, coders and information techs worked in the following areas, according to the BLS:*
- Hospitals: 36 percent
- Physician’s offices: 19 percent
- Admin and support services: 8 percent
- Scientific and technical services: 7 percent
- Nursing care facilities: 6 percent
Specialized roles like cancer registrars are expected to remain in high demand, the BLS says, and as populations grow older, more registries in evermore-specialized clusters will be essential. Growing older for many means more devices that help monitor and diagnose conditions, and more services requiring information technicians to organize and manage vast amounts of data.
What do you need to become a medical coder?
The steps to becoming a medical coding professional are relatively straightforward. Most employers seek candidates with either a post-secondary Certificate or an Associate’s degree, so you’ll need at least some college education. Additionally, health information technicians and coders will want to pursue certifications and registrations.
Gaining your medical coding certification goes a long way in showing you've got the chops to jump right into this fast-growing field. Common certifications like the American Health Information Management Association’s (AHIMA) Certified Coding Associate (CCA) and Certified Coding Specialist (CCS) designations can help show you know your stuff. For these certifications, you’ll need expertise in ICD-10-CM, ICD-10-PCS and CPT coding systems. Another important designation for health information professionals with an Associate’s degree to consider is the Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT®) credential from AHIMA.
Is a medical coding career in your future?
If a fast-paced position in a sector showing impressive growth sounds enticing, then medical coding or health information technician could be in your next job title. If you’d like to learn more about the steps you’ll need to take to make it happen, then check out our article, “Your 5-Step Guide to Becoming a Medical Coder.”
*Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [information accessed 8/6/2018].