What Is a Medical Coder? An Easy Explanation of this Entry-Level Healthcare Career

What is a Medical Coder

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 don’t realize (and neither do many adults): The healthcare field offers many exciting 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 role do medical coders play in the healthcare system?

Think back to the last time you visited a doctor. You were probably greeted by a medical administrator, got your vitals taken by a nurse and then examined by a doctor. But there’s a lot more happening behind the scenes that patients never see.

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.

Medical coding is essentially a specialized language for the medical and insurance industries. Medical coders are the professionals who translate the notes from the doctors and other medical professionals into a uniform set of codes that is given to the insurance provider.

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.

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 medical coders are hired by law firms 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 high ethical standard, because the patient data they work with is highly confidential.

Medical coders must also have a keen eye for detail, as one miniscule 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 skills medical coders need?

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 more than 125,000 medical coding job postings from the past year.1 The data revealed the most important skills employers are seeking.

Here’s what we found:

Technical skills:

Transferable skills:

Medical billing


CPT coding




Medical terminology


Data entry

Attention to detail

If you can relate to a few of the skills on the right, you may be a natural fit for a career as a medical coder. Don’t be intimidated by the list on the left — those are precisely the skills you’ll acquire from formal training.

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.2 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 outlook for medical coders?

Wondering if you’ll be able to find a job after acquiring the training and certification necessary to become a medical coder? Well, worry not, because it turns out medical coders are in high demand. In fact, jobs in this field are projected to grow 15 percent through 2024, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That’s more than twice the average for all occupations.

The BLS reported the median annual salary for medical coders in 2015 was $37,110.3 But actual earnings are dependent on many factors, including education, certification, experience and location. Earnings can end up exceeding $60,000, as noted by the BLS.

The high demand and short path to entry make a career in medical coding an appealing way to enter the growing healthcare field. To determine whether this is a good career match for you, check out our article: Mastering Medical Coding Is Not as Hard as You Think.

1 Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 126,412 medical coder job postings, December 01, 2015 – November 30, 2016).

2 Completion time is dependent on transfer credits accepted and courses completed each term.

3 Salary data represents national, averaged earnings 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.



Gordon Hanson

Gordon is a freelance writer for Collegis Education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. He enjoys using the storytelling power of words to help others discover new paths in the journeys of life.

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