Step 1: Assess Your Community's Need for Coders
Before you hand any money over for that coding program that promises to deliver, you need to do a little homework about your local job market. Yes, it is true - there is a national shortage of coders and the need for more coders in the future is only expected to increase. But that doesn't mean that coders are needed everywhere. Some places may be saturated with coders and others may have a desperate need for them. Are you willing to relocate in order to get the job of your dreams?
The "American Dream" of the coder is to work from home, but the reality is most remote coders are experienced. Most employers require new coders to work in the office setting before allowing them to log in from the comfort of their pj's and fuzzy slippers. So if you are banking on working from home, add a couple years onto your telecommuting goal. If you aren't willing to relocate and there aren't coding positions in your area, you will have a tough time finding a job. While you're searching your local job market for coding positions, see which coding certifications they are requiring. This is going to be very important for Step 3 below.
You should also start to look at what the salaries are for your area. Salaries will range by region and health care setting. Hospital coding jobs typically pay more but they also typically require more expensive education.
Step 2: Determine What Type of Health Care Setting You Want to Work In
This is a tough one to determine if you don't know anything about coding. But think about what type of environment you prefer to work in: physician office or hospital? You may think, "What's the difference?" Plenty. Not only does each setting have its own preferred set of coding credentials, the coding rules and sometimes even the coding systems differ according to health care setting.
Coding for the physician setting generally involves both coding and billing for physician time and effort. This can vary from coding for one or a small group of physicians to coding for large billing offices or health maintenance organizations with hundreds of physicians. Often physician coders become very knowledgeable of a specific specialty, such as cardiology or orthopedics.
Coding in the hospital is segregated from billing. Because coders are coding for the hospital resources (e.g., equipment, nursing and ancillary staff), they are coding entire hospital stays rather than individual physician visits. Most hospital coders code a variety of cases and generally aren't specialized - although some difficult areas of coding like interventional radiology may result in the training of specialty coders within the hospital.
I'm over simplifying the differences, but you get the gist of it. You may want to start by perusing websites for the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) and the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) and read through their online information to see if one triggers an interest over the other. While it's not a hard and fast rule, AAPC-credentialled coders are typically recognized more by physician groups and AHIMA-credentialled coders are recognized more by hospitals.
Step 3: Pick a School That Will Prepare You for Certification
Can you get a coding job without coding certification? Yes. Is it likely? No. If you want to be a coder, you will need to be certified. Pick your school based on the certification it will prepare you for and be wary of schools that offer their own certification - they are typically not accepted by employers. Your future employer should be determining what type of coding certification you need, not the school. The two reigning accrediting bodies for coders that are recognized by employers are the AAPC and AHIMA.
Probably the best way to pick an educational program is to go to either the AAPC or AHIMA's websites and choose one endorsed by the organization with the certification you aspire to get. By doing this, you know you are getting your coding education from instructors and/or schools who have been "checked out" by industry experts.
The AAPC has online and instructor-led courses that prepare the student to take either the Certified Professional Coder (CPC) or Certified Professional Coder-Hospital (CPC-H) coding certificate. Some of these courses may be applied toward credit at the University of Phoenix. There are also various other colleges and schools that will inform you that they prepare their students for AAPC-certification.
AHIMA does things a little differently by accrediting colleges that meet their stringent requirements for program content. While AHIMA has historically been known for certifying individuals who have completed either associates or bachelors degrees at AHIMA-accredited instutions, they also realize the need for coding certificate programs. Many of the schools that offer AHIMA-accredited coding programs also offer degree programs and you may find the counsellors trying to talk you into a degree program. If all you want is to be a certified coder and are not seeking an associates or bachelors degree, don't be distracted from your goal. Stand your ground and tell them you only want the coding certificate. If you are seeking an AHIMA-accredited coding certificate program that will prepare you for AHIMA certification, go to their website (http://www.ahima.org/) and search schools in your area. There are also search options for distance learning if there isn't a school in your area. AHIMA has the following coding credentials:
- Certified Coding Associate (CCA)
- Certified Coding Specialist (CCS)
- Certified Coding Specialist-Physician (CCS-P)
As mentioned previously, which credential you get depends on what employers in your area are looking for. You can get dual certification through both AHIMA and the AAPC if you choose.
Step 4: Get Specific Information About Course Requirements
If you choose a coding school that is not AHIMA-certified or affiliated with the AAPC, you need to look at the course content and determine if it will meet your needs. If you plan to work in a physician office setting, you will need to learn ICD-9-CM diagnosis and CPT procedure coding. You should also look to see if there are any classes about physician reimbursement (look for terms like fee schedule, and relative value units (RVUs).
If you want to work for a hospital, you will need to learn ICD-9-CM diagnosis and procedure coding as well as CPT coding. Hopefully your program also has at least an introduction to hospital code-based reimbursement including diagnosis-related groups (DRGs) and ambulatory payment classifications (APCs).
These tidbits of information may sound like Greek to you if you are just beginning to research the coding industry, but you need to look for these things. You may find a school that also has classes regarding front desk procedures - this is typically an indication that the class will prepare you for a position in a physician's office. If you find a program that includes information about electronic medical records and computers, that's a bonus. You will definitely be using a computer as a coder and you should become familiar with the types of systems you will be using.
You should ask questions about the teaching staff. Are they credentialled themselves? I've met many coders who are excellent and aren't certified, but if you plan to get certified, you should have an instructor who's been there and taken the exam.
What kind of curriculum do they use and where does it come from? Is it written by credentialled coders? This isn't as important if you found your class through the AAPC or AHIMA since all of their curriculum is generally pre-approved. If it's another school, though, it could be crucial.
You absolutely need to ask if you will be required to do an internship or externship. If the answer is no, you should reconsider your education options. I got my first job from one of my internships and it's an excellent way to get practical experience. If they do require an internship/externship, you should ask if it's your responsibility to find an site or the school's. AHIMA-credentialled schools generally work with internship sites to place their students. If you have to find your own practicum site, you need to start networking and finding an institution that will work with you. This generally means signing an agreement with the internship/externship site and you may need to initiate that. The AAPC has Project Xtern, a program that teams aspiring coders with externship sites to get them coding experience. Get more information on Project Xtern at this link.
Step 5: Ask About Job Placement
Will the school help you find a job? If they say yes, ask specific question about their job placement rate and what type of employers they work with. If not, don't despair - you may have to send out 50 resumes and apply to some non-traditional coding jobs, but you can get a coding-related job if you are passionate about the industry and persistent with your efforts.
Step 6: Never Stop Learning
Once you get your coding education completed and get your certification, it's only the beginning. In order to maintain your coding certification, you will need to submit continuing education hours to your credentialling organization every year or two. The only constant in coding is that it's dynamic - once you learn the rules, they often change them. So if you are looking to master an industry that will remain static, reconsider your career choice.
What if I Have a Degree/Certificate From an Unrecognized School?
It happens. Maybe you've already received your degree in medical coding and just found out you spent a lot of money and no one recognizes your degree or certification. What now? It's not the end. What you need to do is make sure you are a member of either the AAPC or AHIMA and get credentialled. You might need to set up your own internship or externship site and do a lot of reading and online research to catch up on some of the things you might have missed. Most of all, you need to start networking with industry professionals, so join your local AAPC chapter or AHIMA component state association.