As essential as doctors, nurses and specialists are within a medical care setting, medical coders also play a vital role in healthcare organizations.
In a situation where whirlwind activity and events can move at a breakneck pace, medical coders handle the tough job of tracking and recording all the details on the treatment and services received by a patient.
They also play a pivotal role in ensuring that hospitals and other medical operations are paid correctly and on time by private and public insurers.
It’s a crucial position in healthcare. That’s why it’s also in demand for those willing to get the training needed to join the ranks of medical coders.
What Medical Coders Do
The most basic definition is that medical coders record clinical information from patients and then transform that into a numerical value that is used with payment sources.
They do this through electronic healthcare records. Every patient at a hospital or clinic has an electronic healthcare record created that includes notes from doctors, nurses and other medical professionals.
The records also include a detailed accounting of every procedure the patient underwent and every medication they were given. This is important both for keeping accurate healthcare records and seeking payments from private insurers, Medicare and Medicaid.
Coders then assign numerical values for every procedures, medication, condition and evaluation done with patients. These numerical values are both the “language” of electronic healthcare records, and a means of shorthand communications between medical operations and insurers.
Medical coding requires clinical knowledge, the ability to work with data in an electronic healthcare records system and an understanding of how the business side of healthcare works.
Job Growth and Salary for Coders
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is the acknowledged best source for information about job growth and salaries across hundreds of professions. While the BLS does not specifically single out medical coders, they include them as a primary group within medical records and healthcare information technicians.
The BLS projects jobs in that area will increase 13 percent by 2026, much faster than the average for all professions. That translates into almost 28,000 people joining the profession.
The federal agency also reports that the median annual salary for those who work in medical records was $38,040 in May 2016, with the top 10 percent earning $62,840.
An aging U.S. population is the reason for much of the growth. Baby Boomers have started to move into their senior years and are staying more active than any previous generation, but they also require medical services for preventive care.
Education for Medical Coders
Most medical coders have certification in the field. Employers typically either want to hire those with certification or those willing to get certification shortly after joining the staff.
Certifications can vary, but one of the most frequently earned is that of a Registered Health Information Technician. Some also earn a two-year associate degree to make themselves both more knowledgeable about medical records systems and a more attractive job candidate.
For those who want to advance, a bachelor’s degree is usually required to become a manager that oversees medical coding. Because of the importance of the job in the healthcare financial system, managers typically have earned a degree in business, technology or health informatics.
Hospitals rank high among healthcare facilities offering the best salaries to medical coders, with a median pay of $40,510. The majority — and the best-paying — jobs are in states with high populations such as California, New York, Texas, Ohio and Florida.
Pay and job market health vary by geographic region. All job seekers should conduct their own research.
Qualified medical coders are critical for success at hospitals, nursing homes and clinics. For those wishing to enter the healthcare industry, but not necessarily as a physician or nurse, it’s a job worth considering.