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While medical coding specialists rarely have direct contact with patients, they are an integral part of the healthcare industry. Using their understanding of medical terminology, medical coders assign a code to every diagnosis or procedure performed in a hospital or physician's office. These codes are recorded in patients' medical files so that insurance companies can determine whether a procedure is covered and how much healthcare organizations should be reimbursed. Procedures or services not coded correctly could cost patients, healthcare practitioners, or insurance companies money. More seriously, it could record incorrect information into a patient's medical history.
Medical coding specialists must typically have a baseline understanding of medical terminology and medical procedures. They must be good with numbers and very detail-oriented. Because they rely on computers to assign and record medical codes, strong computer skills are also required.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), health information technicians, which include medical coders, earned a median salary of $30,610 in May, 2008, with the middle 50 percent earning between $24,290 and $39,490. Earning potential was best for those working in hospitals, followed by those employed by nursing care facilities, outpatient care centers, and physicians' offices.
Training and Education
Most medical coders have earned at least an associate's degree from a community college, career school, or university, though bachelor's degrees are becoming more common. Relevant course-work includes anatomy, physiology, data coding, medical terminology, database management, and statistics.
According to the BLS, medical coders can seek certification within a specific medical specialty through the Board of Medical Specialty Coding and the Professional Association of Healthcare Coding Specialists (PAHCS). The American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) offers three additional certification programs while the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) offers Certified Healthcare Privacy and Security programs. The National Cancer Registrars Association offers cancer-related certification.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 168,650 medical records and health information technicians held jobs in 2008, with medical coding specialists numbering among them. About 2 of every 5 worked in hospitals, followed by physicians' offices, nursing care facilities, and outpatient care centers.
Thanks to a continued increase in the number of medical treatments and procedures evaluated by health insurance companies and patients alike, employment for medical coders is expected to increase 18 percent by 2016, which is faster than average.