An Expert’s Guide for students considering pursuing a degree in medical coding, by Hannah Rowland

What is Medical Coding?

Medical coders play a growing role in the health care industry. They translate patient medical histories into standard alphanumeric codes so that they can be used for billing and record-keeping. To enter this profession, you can either enroll in a 1-year certification program or a 2-year associates degree program. Associates degree programs allow you to earn credits toward a bachelors degree in health care administration, but they also require a larger investment of time and money than certificate programs. Both education tracks prepare you to pass certifications exams and enter the profession.

What to Look for in Medical Coding Programs

If you want to begin a career as a medical coder, you should be aware that the best programs are accredited by either the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) or as the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA). It is also possible to earn education at the certificate and associates degree levels. No matter what level of education you earn, it is a good idea to become certified in the field as well. For students who may want to pursue higher education, you can earn a bachelors degree in the related field of healthcare administration.

What to Expect in Medical Coding Training

Accredited classes prepare you for the certification exams that are offered by the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) and the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA). Students who enroll in schools for a certification program or an associates degree are qualified for entry-level positions after they graduate and take a certification exam. Courses typically include classes in core topics such as medical terminology, anatomy and physiology and medical billing. These classes also emphasize and improve your attention to detail, your concentration and your ability to work with numbers.

The Best Medical Coding Courses for Students

Although certification programs and associates degrees have different educational requirements, both paths offer top courses that prepare students for careers in this branch of healthcare. The best classes offered by professional associations like the AAPC prepare you for specific certification exams. Associates degree programs offer more general courses in medical terminology, anatomy and physiology and medical coding that prepare you for several certification exams as well as a broader career in the healthcare industry.

Medical Coding Certificate Programs

Before a medical employer hires you to organize and manage their patients’ healthcare information, they usually want to be sure that you have at least a certificate from an accredited program. Although most higher-level healthcare jobs require higher level of education, entry-level medical coder positions are usually open to candidates who have completed a 1-year certification program. Hundreds of accredited colleges offer certificate programs that focus on the fundamentals, such as medical terminology, coding and classification systems, billing and reimbursement and basic pharmacology.

Medical Coding Associates Degree

An associates degree prepares you for a career working in the billing and administrative departments of hospitals and private medical offices. An associate of applied science or medical coding AAS takes 18 months to 3 years to complete and provides you with the knowledge and experience that you need to pass your certification exam and advance in this field. Tuition for associates degrees at accredited colleges and technical schools can cost from $5,000 to $20,000 and you should consider it as an investment in a long-term career.

The Pros and Cons of Attending Medical Coding Schools Online

Online schools offer an increasingly popular alternative to a traditional brick-and-mortar education, and provide a more flexible and sometimes less expensive way to earn degrees. Online certificate programs and online associates degree programs both have unique advantages and disadvantages in terms of cost, convenience and quality. However, most students find that the greatest advantage of online courses is the flexibility that they provide to learn at your own pace and balance your study schedule with the demands of a job and a personal life.

How Employers View an Online Medical Coding Degree

Employers used to be less willing to consider candidates with an online AAS degrees, but distance learning is becoming more accepted in this profession. If you receive your online training at a school and also undertake an internship, you can be a competitive candidate. Online majors will still need to be proactive in developing a network to assist with job opportunities, and gaining real work experience will help tremendously. Once you finish your degree, earning your medical coding certification will also make you be a competitive candidate on the job market.

Advice for Students Studying in Online Medical Coding Training Programs

Online universities offer students the rigor and flexibility needed to earn a certificate or an associates degree. Students who will need online financial aid should confirm that their program is accredited if they want to be eligible for low-interest government grants and loans. While scheduling of your online courses may be tailored around your family life and job, be sure to take these classes seriously so that you have the basis for a sound education in medical coding.

The Paths for Becoming a Medical Coder

There are several educational options that will prepare you for a medical coding career, including a certificate, an associates degree and professional certification courses. These training paths can take as little as 3 months or as long as 2 years to complete. Although all 3 paths prepare you to take your professional certification exam and work in entry-level jobs, an associates degree provides you with a broader education that prepares you for higher positions in the healthcare industry as well as a higher salary.

Medical Coding Certification

While certification is not a requirement, more and more employers, especially in big hospitals and busy private offices, prefer to interview candidates with some professional certifications. Certification proves that you have the skills and knowledge to do the job, and will make you stand out among other job applicants. Earning a certification will not always improve your starting salary, but it will give you space to negotiate and should position you for a quicker and bigger raise than you might otherwise receive.

Medical Coding Job Options

Your career will require you translate different types of patient healthcare information into standardized alphanumeric codes. Many jobs also overlap with medical billing jobs. Medical billers are usually the central link between healthcare providers, insurance companies and patients. You can find jobs in almost any healthcare setting, but the most common employers are physicians’ offices and hospitals. Once you find a job, your salary will depend on your employer, your level of certification and your experience.

Medical Coding Salaries

There are a number of important factors that will affect your salary, including your workplace, your level of experience and your professional certifications. There is a good chance that your career will be in a hospital or the office of a physician since these 2 employers hire over half of all specialists. The best paying jobs are found in the federal government and at research institutions, but regardless of where you work, the best way to increase your pay is to gain experience and earn specialty certifications.

Advice for Medical Coding Professionals

Whether you are still in school or have just started a new career, there are a few general tips that can help you succeed in this challenging profession. For instance, students can often work part time in non-specialty positions that are closely related to jobs in order to gain an overview of how healthcare offices function. You can also improve your chances of success on the job market and possibly find a higher salary if you are familiar with the newest versions of medical coding systems.