Education Requirements and Medical Coding

Chapter 3

Education is critical for medical coders. You must be educated to find a job as a medical coder. It's important that you look at your education - whether you opt for an associate degree or a master's degree - as an investment in your future.

As we've already discussed, your level of education will inevitably be an important factor in your annual salary, and it will also play some role in your opportunities for advancement.

In most cases, you can secure a medical coding job with an associate's degree or a medical coding certificate.

However, if you choose to go for a bachelor or graduate degree, you will expand your job options and your earning potential.

In addition to being competent working with industry codes (CPT, HCPCS or ICD-9, depending on where you work), medical coders must have a solid knowledge of medical terminology, anatomy and physiology and database management.

To find the right program for you, you want to make sure the school's medical coding program includes courses in:

  • Medical terminology
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Radiology coding
  • Pathology coding
  • ICD-9 coding
  • CPT surgical coding
  • CPT non-surgical coding
  • Healthcare laws and ethics
  • Insurance abuse and fraud
  • Insurance compliance

If your long-term goal is to start your own business, or you want to advance into a management position, you may also want to take a few business courses. We'll discuss starting your own medical coding business later.

You may also want to talk with the school and ask them specific questions, including:

  • What type of, and how many years of, experience do instructors have?
  • Are instructors available by phone (for online programs) if you have questions, comments or concerns?
  • Is the school and/or course approved by AHIMA or any other professional coding organizations?
  • How much does the program cost (including pertinent fees)?
  • Does the school have a job placement program?
  • How long does the program last?
  • Do you offer financial aid?

Your options for medical coding education are varied. Now that you know what courses to look for and what questions to ask, let's take a look at your options:

- High school. If you're still in high school and are considering a career in medical coding, you can start preparing now. Sign up for biology, health, computer science and chemistry. These classes will give you the foundation you need to enter a college or technical school program and to succeed in the medical coding field.

- Community college. Most communities are home to community colleges that offer programs in medical coding. Some offer associate (two-year) degrees while other offer certificates. Community colleges are often much more affordable than your local four-year university, and they offer you the same high-level of education.

Before making a final decision as to what program you'll choose, talk with the person who heads the medical coding program at your local community college. You'll find that many times medical coding and medical billing are combined in programs, giving you a greater diversity of skills.

- Trade or vocational skills. Many trade and vocational skills now offer medical coding (again, often paired with medical billing, giving you a greater diversity of skills). You can find a list of trade schools by clicking here. The School Directory also has an extensive list of trade and vocational skills that offer medical coding and other healthcare careers.

Programs at trade or vocational schools may run anywhere from a year to two years, resulting in a medical coding certificate. When you find schools you are interested in, make an appointment to discuss the program with an instructor or admissions' counselor.

- Online programs. For some people, going to school is simply not an option. Time is a precious commodity for many people, and that's why more and more students are turning to online programs to get the education they want and need. There are a plethora of online medical coding programs you may want to consider.

Before you sign up to take an online program or pay the school any money, make sure you ask all of the questions listed above, and thoroughly investigate the school. Check with the BBB and ask for references from former students. Make sure you speak to former students to find out their experiences. Get information from the schools you are looking at, including costs and credentials of the school. You might also want to ask other medical coders for their thoughts; you can do so by visiting medical coding message boards, including:

- Four-year programs. You may decide that you want a bachelor's degree. If you opt for a bachelor's degree, you'll want to find a Health Information Management Program. Medical coders with a bachelor's degree also have the option of becoming a certified Registered Health Information Technician. Furthermore, a bachelor's degree also increases your change of career advancement.

- Master's degree. Graduate study is intense and costly. Many graduate students work full-time while they go to school (either part-time or full-time). Earning a master's degree is a huge accomplishment. It's also a big commitment, so you'll want to take time to consider if it's one you're willing to make.

With a graduate degree, you'll expand your skills and your job options upon graduation. A master's in Health Information Management may lead you to a career, among others, as:

  • Instructor at a local community college or university
  • Chief compliance officer
  • Health information officer
  • Public information officer
  • Health information management consultant

You might also want to check out the American Health Information Management Association's website for AHIMA accredited programs.