What Is a Medical Coder? An Easy Explanation of This Healthcare Career

 patient sitting on exam table

As every parent knows, small children love role-playing. One of the more popular games is pretending to be a doctor. “I’ll be the doctor and you can be the nurse,” your little one exclaims.

But here’s what most kids (and many adults) don’t realize: The healthcare field offers a plethora of career opportunities beyond being a doctor or nurse.

One option that is often overlooked is medical coding. If you’re asking yourself, “What is a medical coder?” you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading to take a closer look at this growing medical career.

What is medical coding, exactly?

Before we talk about what medical coders do, it’s important to have a solid understanding of what medical coding is at its core. Medical coding and record keeping can be tracked back in crude form to as far back as 17th century England, but it has rapidly evolved during the past few decades.1

According to the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC), the medical coding definition reads as follows: “Medical coding is the transformation of healthcare diagnosis, procedures, medical services and equipment into universal medical alphanumeric codes.”2 Put simply, this refers to the process of translating important medical information into simple codes for the purpose of documenting medical records and informing accurate medical billing.

There are a few different types of medical codes used in healthcare settings today, but each of them allows for uniform documentation between medical facilities. Having this standard system allows for a more seamless transfer of medical records and more efficient research and analysis to track health trends.

What is a medical coder?

Medical coders are the individuals responsible for translating physicians’ reports into useful medical codes. These professionals work behind the scenes in a variety of settings, ensuring all pertinent information is coded appropriately to ensure consistency and accuracy.

After a medical provider examines or treats a patient, the insurance company needs to understand what was done in order to process the bill. Common language is too inexact to give the insurance company the accurate details it needs, so a set of specific codes has been established to define medical procedures. It’s the role of the medical coder to pass along this information in a way that is useful and efficient.

Where do medical coders work?

You may assume you know the answer to this question—hospitals, of course! But there are several other settings a medical coder might work. The simple answer is that these professionals are employed anywhere that provides medical services. This includes hospitals, clinics, urgent care facilities, nursing homes, treatment centers and more, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).3

Some insurance agencies also employ medical coders to handle patient claims from the other side of the table, verifying the accuracy of incoming claims. Speaking of accuracy, some law firms even employ medical coders to help identify billing fraud.

What are some qualities that successful medical coders share?

There is no “typical” prototype when it comes to medical coders. You’ll find men and women, young and old, single and married. But good medical coders do share some common characteristics that help them on the job. One critical trait is a strong ethical standard because the patient data they work with is highly confidential.

Medical coders must also have a keen eye for detail, as one minuscule mistake in a code could lead to much larger issues. They also must be able to remain focused because their work is rather repetitive, yet extremely important.

What are some important medical coding skills?

There are a handful of technical skills medical coders need to succeed in the field, but transferable skills are important as well. We used real-time job analysis software to examine nearly 17,000 medical coding job postings from the past year.4 The data revealed the most important skills employers are seeking.

Top technical skills:

  • ICD-10
  • Customer billing
  • Health information technology
  • CPT coding
  • Inpatient coding
  • Outpatient coding
  • ICD-9
  • Anatomy
  • HCPCS coding
  • Clinical documentation

Top transferable skills:

  • Communication
  • Research
  • Computer literacy
  • Microsoft Office®
  • Attention to detail
  • Collaboration
  • Organization
  • Analytical skills
  • Problem-solving
  • Time management

If you can relate to some of those transferable skills, you may be a natural fit for a career as a medical coder. And don’t be intimidated by the list of technical skills—those are precisely the skills you’ll acquire with a formal education.

How do you become a medical coder?

Becoming a medical coder requires specialized training and certification. It’s not a job just anyone can perform. But that’s what makes medical coders valued professionals in the world of healthcare.

Although training is essential, the time it will take is significantly less than other healthcare professions. Many medical coding programs can be completed online in as few as nine months.5 This fast and flexible 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.

Upon completing a medical coding program, the next step is to take the CCA (Certified Coding Associate) or CCS (Certified Coding Specialist) exams offered by the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA). This step is not always required, but is typically favored by employers.

What is the career outlook for medical coders?

You’ve likely heard about the industry-wide growth expected in the healthcare field.3 So it’s not surprising that jobs for medical coders are on the rise as well. The BLS projects employment of medical coders to increase 13 percent through 2026, which is nearly twice the average for all occupations.3

Your next logical question is, “How much do medical coders make?” According to the BLS, the median annual salary for medical coders in 2017 was $39,180.3 This falls slightly above the average for all occupations. Factors such as experience, education and work setting can also contribute to higher medical coding salary ranges. The BLS reports the top-earning professionals can make upwards of $60,000 annually.3

Considering becoming a medical coder?

You now have a basic understanding of the medical coding definition, what a medical coder is and the important role these professionals play in the healthcare industry. The favorable job growth and short path to entry make this an appealing option for those wanting to get a start in the medical field.

If you’re considering following this career path, it’s time to prepare for what’s next. Learn about the path ahead in our article “Your 5-Step Guide to Become a Medical Coder.”

1World Health Organization, History of the development of the ICD, [accessed March, 2019] https://www.who.int/classifications/icd/en/HistoryOfICD.pdf
2American Association of Professional Coders (AAPC), What is Medical Coding? [accessed March 2019] https://www.aapc.com/medical-coding/medical-coding.aspx
3Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed March, 2019]. www.bls.gov/ooh Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries, and employment conditions in your area may vary.
4Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 16,913 medical coder job postings, Mar. 01, 2018 – Feb. 28, 2019).
5Completion time is dependent on transfer credits accepted and courses completed each term.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in January 2017. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2019.
Microsoft Office is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation.

Callie Malvik

Callie is the Content Manager at Collegis Education, overseeing blog content on behalf of Rasmussen University. She is passionate about creating quality resources that empower others to improve their lives through education.

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