Thursday, March 11, 2010

Code Words for Getting Your Foot in the Door

It's the question I am asked most often as a mentor. "How do I get experience if no one will hire me without experience?" The unfortunate reality is that many employers aren't ready to assume the time, effort, and risk associated with hiring a newbie coder. But that doesn't mean that getting a job as a coder is impossible.

If you begin by looking at the job postings in your area for coders and then take a look around your live or virtual classroom at the number of students who will be looking for coding positions at the same time you will be, you can see that it just doesn't add up. In most markets there simply aren't enough coding positions for every coding student. But that doesn't mean there aren't other positions that will allow you to use and cultivate your skills and potentially align you for that coding position.

It can be especially tricky to make your way into a coding position in a hospital if you have no practical experience. The reasons for this are varied: some hospitals don't hire "newbie" coders, some hospitals have so many coding positions open that there are limited entry-level positions available, and some hospitals receive many resumes from both experienced and novice coders and subsequently hire the experienced coders. But this doesn't mean that the door is permanently closed - you just need to know how to nudge it open.

Consider HIM Positions
In the hospital setting, coding is often part of the health information management (HIM) department. While it can be difficult to get a coding position right out of school, it might be easier to get an entry-level position into an HIM department. This may mean assembling or scanning medical record documents, analyzing medical records for missing documentation, abstracting data for core measures and other hospital reporting needs, birth certificate completion, transcribing medical record reports, and working with registries (e.g., cancer, trauma, cardiac).

Many HIM departments promote coders from within when they show promise. Once you have your foot in the HIM department and are working solidly within one of these non-coding positions, though, it is no time to get lazy. Offering to do projects and work on teams that will expose you to coding and coded data is crucial. If you are interested in a coding position, you should never be shy about letting your supervisor know that that is your goal. If a coding position opens up, you need to make sure that HIM and coding management are aware of your interest.

The bonus to a position within HIM is that should a coding position become available, you will already be working for the managers responsible for hiring. You may also be exposed to other areas of health information and data management that you may otherwise miss if you follow the coding track only. The downside to a non-coding position within HIM is that you may still be overlooked for advancement to a coding position if an experienced, qualified external candidate applies for a coding job at your hospital. The dynamics of internal vs. external hires is very organization-specific, though, and there are always exceptions to the rule.

Try Billing On For Size
If you are interested in the billing side of coding, there may be opportunities in the billing (or patient financial services) department within a hospital. Look for positions that require coding skill by reading through the necessary skills. Dead giveaways include positions that require ICD-9-CM or CPT/HCPCS coding experience or "familiarity." Positions requiring "familiarity" with coding typically translate to entry-level positions. This may include working billing edit reports, processing insurance claims, or following up on insurance claim denials.

The benefits of working the billing end of coding are that you will become very familiar with the edit process and what won't be paid based on codes. This could potentially move into other billing-related positions including charge master maintenance. A disadvantage of working in billing is that should you be seeking a position as a coder within HIM, you won't be working for HIM's hiring managers and it could be more difficult to get the position you ultimately desire.

Develop a Plan
Whichever path you decide to explore, you should always take the time to develop a planned career path - even if that path deviates from your career map. Employers want to know what kind of position you are interested in so that they can assess your skill, how to get you where you want to go, and ensure that your career goals are in line with the organization. So take the time to develop a simply laid-out map of where you plan to be professionally within 1, 5, and 10 years.

Whatever path you decide to take, follow it with confidence and commit to learning as much as you possibly can in that position. It will take time to become skilled as a coder and like to many other worthwhile careers, you will get out of it what you put into it. Best of luck to you all!