The High Demand For Medical Coders

By Kforce Staff Writer

The scope of health information management (HIM) has grown significantly over the past few years. Many of the professionals in this area have experienced new challenges and role changes. As a consultant with a specialty staffing company, I have seen a significant increase in demand for the HIM professional, especially in the skilled areas of coding and coding review specialists.

High Demand and Increased Shortage of Coders

The good news is that along with the increase in demand for coders, their role in health information management has become significantly broader and more important. The bad news is that there continues to be a nationwide shortage of credentialed coding professionals. And the coders already in the profession are having a hard time keeping up with all of the changes in this field. At an HIM conference recently, the keynote speaker told the audience: "The key to a successful career in coding is being prepared to change." You don't have to look far to find evidence of the huge medical coder shortage. Every HIM professional magazine or journal has a plethora of classified advertisements from hospitals seeking coders, coding review specialists and coding managers. It is not unusual to see hospitals offering sign-on bonuses and relocation assistance as they compete for the best available coders. This was unheard of two years ago. The demand has never been greater. And a manager trying to fill an open position knows that the shortage is not improving.

Why the Shortage....?

There are a multitude of circumstances contributing to this shortage. It is not unusual for the health care career pool to shrink in a strong economy. And despite high demand, fewer people are choosing coding as a profession. Most high school seniors preparing for graduation know nothing about the medical record coding profession. High schools and colleges are not really selling HIM careers, and enrollment in the two- and four-year college programs has generally declined. Yet, surprisingly, new grads emerging from them are experiencing difficulty finding employment. This trend is most likely due to the fact that HIM departments are generally overworked and understaffed. Managers and team leaders do not have time to train individuals who cannot hit the ground running. HIM directors say again and again that they would love to train a new coder but just don't have the time. In addition, changes in the coding profession, such as electronic patient records, concurrent coding and the advent of ambulatory payment classifications (APCs), make it difficult for even the skilled coder to keep up. A new coder just entering the profession is lost before they even begin. And have I mentioned the salary issue? The law of supply and demand generally dictates that if a skill is in short supply, the price should skyrocket, but that is not the case for coders. So why aren't coders being paid more? Hospital administrators, especially chief financial officers, are just beginning to understand that the coder salary has not kept up with the demand for the position. The good news is that the salary is rising.

Tips for the Coding Professional

So, knowing that demand for coders has never been greater, how can you either enter the field or make the career move you have been contemplating? Here are some suggestions: 1. If you are a new coder, learn from the best. Find the best college in your vicinity that offers strong courses in medical terminology, anatomy, physiology and disease process. Volunteer to sit beside coders in hospitals and see exactly what the job entails. If you are not detail-oriented, and don't like detective work or reading, this may not be the right job for you. 2. Be flexible. Coders are needed in many areas outside of the traditional hospital setting. Try physician practices, insurance and outsourcing companies, and legal firms. Do your own research or work with a staffing specialist to find the right spot for you. 3. Be willing to relocate. Smaller hospitals in rural settings will usually give new coders a chance. It may not be in the city of your dreams, but you can definitely obtain the experience you need. 4. Network. Get involved with your local chapters of the American Health Information Management Association (http://www.ahima.org). Meet as many people as you can at conferences, conventions and monthly meetings. The more people you know and connections you make, the better your employment options. 5. Become credentialed as soon as you are eligible. Initials after your name make a big difference. Most hospitals now require their coders to be credentialed. And usually, the pay rate jumps with each one! 6. Make sure your job-seeking skills are sharp. 7. Does your resume need work? 8. Are your interview skills rusty? 9. Have you prepped your references? 10. Are you unsure how to negotiate a strong salary or relocation package? 11. Use a staffing specialist to help you find the best position to fit your skills. 12. Read everything. Keep up with the news and changes in your chosen field. Read journals and information from coding clinics. Become "exchange ready" in your field. With so many options available to medical coders in today's job market, it's a tremendous time for current coders and those wishing to enter this area of the health care profession.