How long does it take to become a medical billing and coding specialist?
If you’re considering a career in medical billing and coding and have seen claims promising to teach you the skills and knowledge you need in a matter of weeks, we’d like to set the record straight.
Career Choice: Is Medical Billing and Coding Everything They Say It Is?
First, for those interested in this profession, we want to say that medical billing and coding is an outstanding career choice. It is not, however, for everyone.
But if you like science, are interested in medicine, have an eye for detail, enjoy solving puzzles, and think you’d like interacting with doctors and clinicians, you’ll love this job. (Don’t take our word for it, though. Talk to coders and billers. If you don’t know any, bring your questions to our Facebook group.)
“Coding has given me a career that is challenging, always different, and I’ve met some amazing people while earning a paycheck that I’m very proud of!” — Rebecca Poff
Coding and billing doesn’t require four years of college or even require two years in a degree program. If you are new to healthcare, you can be trained and ready for the job market in just eight months, possibly four months if you have medical experience.
Certified medical coders and billers are highly respected in the healthcare industry and well compensated by their employers. In fact, medical billing and coding ranked 55 on U.S. News 100 Best Jobs in 2019.
Your Medical Coding and Billing Education: Expectations vs. Reality
Medical coding and billing is challenging and takes time to learn. Just as 4 weeks of piano lessons won’t make you a concert pianist, a 4-week course in medical billing and coding is not enough to prepare you to pass your certification exam and function successfully as a medical coder or biller.
If you have medical experience, four months is the least amount of time we would recommend for training and preparation — eight months without medical experience.
Here’s why time is crucial, outlined in six reasons that a 4-week online course for medical billing and coding is just not enough.
- Medical coding is a language. Fluency takes time to acquire.
ICD-10 , CPT®, and HCPCS Level II code sets aren’t traditional languages of a country or region, but they are a means of communication within healthcare, particularly between provider and payer. Medical codes serve as a common language that allows us to share, compare, and protect health information. Before working as a coder, you need to become fluent in the language of medical coding, which no one achieves in just four weeks.
2. Fast-tracked learning is ineffective.
Some people can memorize information in a snap, but understanding what they memorized requires significant time immersed in the subject.
Scientists refer to memorization and understanding as surface-level and deep-level learning. To succeed in medical coding and billing requires an understanding of how and why codes are constructed the way they are. It requires the kind of deep-level learning that a four-week course simply cannot provide.
3. Science education is required.
Could you follow a chart that reads, “TM clear, nares clear, oral exam WNL. No clubbing. Respiratory: clear to auscultation and percussion. Skin: clear, good turgor. Denies polyuria, polydipsia, polyphagia”? If not, you’re in good company.
Understanding this passage requires base knowledge of medical terminology and anatomy. Medical coders translate documentation like this into medical codes. This requires a basic understanding of what is being translated. Obviously, no one would be able translate a passage in German to English without first understanding German. The same applies here.
“There is no better read than medical documentation. It is a field where the education is endless. You continually learn something new every day.” — Lori Haney Hayward
4. Different rules for different health insurance models and plans takes time.
Not all payer policies agree with coding guidelines, and no two payer policies are identical. A key concept like medical necessity is defined differently by health insurance providers. What’s more, payer policies change constantly and are hard to pin down. Medical coders and billers need to learn where to find current information. They need to know how to navigate complex situations, such as split claims processes.
By now, you’re starting to see the vast amount of learning you’ll be expected to squeeze into a four-week program.
5. What about time to practice?
Practice plays a big role in passing the certification exam and earning your medical billing and coding certification. Certification exams go beyond assessing your ability to code accurately — they also assess how much time you take. Learning the basics in just four weeks is an unreasonable demand in itself, never mind honing your coding skills and confidence to a point where you’d be ready for testing.
Practice is an effective type of immersion in the subject you’re learning. It reinforces retention, genuine understanding, and the working knowledge you need to navigate the nuances of coding and billing.
6. Becoming intimately familiar with Your code books is essential — and takes time.
As you may know, you’re allowed to reference your code books during the certification exam, which is great if you know your way around the books.
Developing familiarity (especially with a 400-page book) takes time. To use your code books, you need to prepare them and — you guessed it — this will require more than four weeks.
Prepping your code books means taking notes in the margins, writing abridged versions of guidelines next to codes that give you trouble, tabbing sections, highlighting certain codes and descriptors. It’s a big job, but the more time you put into it, the better you’ll preform on the exam.
Choosing Between a Few Weeks of Study and Several Months of Coding and Billing Training
Check pass rate of certifications exam of people who attended a four-week online medical billing and coding course.
Shortcuts are always tempting. And in this case, the institutions offering a four-week shortcut to learn medical billing and coding are taking people’s money without offering anything close to the amount of education, preparation, and training you need to pass the certification exam and enter the workforce.
Make sure your training is thorough and prepares you for real-world coding or billing — not just with a certificate, but with the training, practice, and know-how required to succeed.
AAPC’s annual salary survey gives a good understanding of the earning potential within the medical coding profession.
See what actually is going on in the healthcare business job market.