What Is a Medical Coder? An Easy Explanation

Illustration of a patient sitting on a doctor's 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!”

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

One often overlooked administrative option 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 important healthcare support 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 in a crude form can be tracked 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.”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 two different types of medical codes primarily used in healthcare settings today: International Classification of Diseases (ICD) and the Current Procedural Terminology (CPT)®. While there are certainly distinctions between these classification systems, their purpose is similar—to allow for uniform documentation between medical facilities. Having this standard system allows for a more seamless transfer of medical records, streamlined billing 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 uniform 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 or government provider 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 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 people of all ages, identities and experiences. 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—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. Additionally, it helps to be efficient and even-keeled, as their work is often tied to meeting production- and accuracy-based goals.

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 over 25,000 medical coding job postings from the past year and identified some of the top skills employers are seeking. 

Top technical skills for medical coders:4

  • Medical coding
  • Customer billing
  • ICD-10
  • CPT coding
  • Health information technology
  • HCPCS coding
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Clinical documentation
  • Inpatient coding
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance

Top transferable skills for medical coders:4

  • Communication
  • Research
  • Computer literacy
  • Microsoft Office®
  • Teamwork/collaboration
  • Organization
  • Multi-tasking
  • 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 barrier to entry into the health information field isn’t as high as other healthcare careers. For instance, the Medical Billing and Coding Certificate program at Rasmussen University 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 that are looking to get started in the health information field.

Upon completing a medical coding program, the next step is to earn the CCA (Certified Coding Associate) or CCS (Certified Coding Specialist) credential 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 records and health information specialists to grow 9 percent through 2030.3

How much do medical coders make?

Your next logical question is probably “How much do medical coders make?” According to the BLS, the 2020 median annual salary for medical records and health information specialists was $45,240.3 This falls slightly above the national average for all occupations. Factors such as experience, education and work setting can also contribute to higher medical coding salary ranges.

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 November 2021] https://www.who.int/classifications/icd/en/HistoryOfICD.pdf
2American Association of Professional Coders (AAPC), What is Medical Coding? [accessed November 2021] https://www.aapc.com/medical-coding/medical-coding.aspx
3Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed November 2021]. 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 25,637 medical coder job postings, Nov. 1, 2020 – Oct. 31, 2021).
5Completion time is dependent on the number of transfer credits accepted and the number of 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 2021.

Microsoft Office is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation.
American Academy of Professional Coders is a registered trademark of American Academy Holdings, LLC.
CPT is a registered trademark of the American Medical Association.
AHIMA, Certified Coding Specialist and Certified Coding Associate are registered trademarks of American Health Information Management Association, Inc

About the author

Will Erstad

Will is a Sr. Content Specialist at Collegis Education. He researches and writes student-focused articles on a variety of topics for Rasmussen University. He is passionate about learning and enjoys writing engaging content to help current and future students on their path to a rewarding education.

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