Untapped Potential: The Growing Medical Coding Industry

By: Agbayani P. Pingol II

The health care industry in the Philippines has attracted both employers and potential workers for the better part of the decade but has since plateaued with the downswing of demand for healthcare professionals. It was in 2008 when newly minted Filipino nurses underwent a rude awakening that the demand for the once highly coveted profession of the 21st century had dwindled—primarily due to more conservative visa policies in the US and the indirect effects of the global economic crisis.

Now, graduates who earn degrees in medical courses belong to the majority of unemployed graduates, according to data from the Labor Force Survey, with over 50,000 new registered nurses who pass the Nursing Licensure Exam each year scrambling for employment opportunities here and abroad. Despite this, nursing continues to be an attractive course for students with a staggering 200,000 nursing graduates in 2012 or more than 15% of the total graduate class. This will only increase the already swelling surplus of nurses as supply soars above demand. That being said, a new thriving industry seeks to make the most out of this situation.

Recent legislations in the US that require the digitization of health records and healthcare auditing have put Medical Coding, or the process of transforming medical descriptions of healthcare services into numeric or alphanumeric codes, into the spotlight. The Medical Coding industry has steadily grown from generating around $102M in 2010, it has increased to $430M in 2012, and is projected to generate more than $2B in 2016.

Along with this influx of revenues is the increase in employment opportunities as the industry expects to generate more than 120,000 jobs by 2016. Finally, unemployed healthcare professionals can look forward to something. In the US alone, there is a constant 20-30% shortage of medical coders, which is expected to grow to 50% when the new ICD-10 is implemented. This, along with foreign healthcare companies’ needs to look for offshore entities to provide quality Medical Coding services, has molded it to one of the fastest growing sector of the Filipino Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry. In the Philippines, a certified coder can earn an average of P40,000 to as much as P163,000 when working abroad, way above the average salary of a veteran nurse. It begs the question, why haven’t the labor force taken advantage of this opportunity?

One key factor is the public’s lack of knowledge about Medical Coding. This is something that Medical Coding stalwart Health Care Billing Institute (HCBI) aims to solve. As one of two institutions outside the US authorized by the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) to administer certification examinations and the first institution to teach Medical Coding in the Philippines, it seeks to bridge the gap between the growing demand for Medical Coders and the surplus of highly trained healthcare professionals. So far, HCBI trainees have a passing rate of 99%, with 100% of their passers getting job placements with the help of industry partners.

With organizations like HCBI and the steady availability of a quality labor force, the Medical Coding Industry is poised to strengthen its foothold in the country’s BPO landscape and to reinvigorate the stagnant health care sector. While Medical Coding is a relatively new practice in the Philippines, the future definitely looks bright for all the players in the industry.

How to Become a Medical Coder

Medical coding, or the process of translating medical records into alphanumeric codes, is quickly gaining attention as a lucrative career path especially for healthcare professionals. As a bit of background, the profession surged to popularity as a result of stricter medical standards in the US. To save cost, companies started to outsource these services and have molded medical coding to one of the fastest growing business process outsourcing (BPO) services in the Philippines. With a nurturing corporate setting, a stable salary that can go up to six digits in the first year, and an abundance of employment opportunities here and abroad, it’s not hard to see why many have ventured into medical coding. However, most people don’t even know how to become a medical coder, let alone how to become a certified one. Here are five tips to help you in entering and being successful in the medical coding industry:

Get a college degree – Even though a high school diploma is the only educational requirement in becoming medical coder, it’s a good idea to enroll in courses that provides clinical experience. Naturally, people who already have knowledge in medical terminology, anatomy, and pathophysiology can go through the required training much faster than those with no clinical experience at all. For those who lack experience, you would need to take crash courses to enhance their clinical knowledge before starting their training.

Choose a good training program - It’s very important to look for a training program that includes everything you will need to pass the certification exam conferred by the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) or the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA). Many community colleges offer associate degrees in medical coding or medical coding certificates but are not specialized for passing the certification exam, and can be pricey—to as much as five digits in US$ of training fees. Alternatively, you can go for training institutions that have high passing rates and are also accredited by the AAPC or AHIMA to administer training examinations.

Start your job search ASAP – Securing your first job placement is crucial because it also speeds up your certification. While still in school, it’s a good idea to look for internships that, although unpaid, can help you make connections and gain valuable work experience. And while it’s ideal to get a medical coder position outright, you can also start anywhere in an organization—be it in the front desk or the records department—and work your way up.

Get certified – Certification is not required for medical coders but passing a certification exam certainly goes a long way in developing your career in the industry. Certified coders are typically offered at least 20% higher salaries than non-certified coders. Hand in hand with tip no. 2, it’s important to know which exam certification exam to take. The AAPC offers multiple certifications including the Certified Professional Coder (CPC), Certified Outpatient Coding (COC), Certified Inpatient Coder (CIC), etc., while AHIMA offers the Certified Coding Associate (CCA), Certified Coding Specialist (CCS), and the Certified Coding Specialist-Physician-based (CCS-P) exams. For the AAPC certification, you would need to have two years of experience to be fully certified while AHIMA recommends that you have six months of coding experience, have completed an AHIMA approved program, or completed another coding program before taking the exam.

Maintain your credential status – After passing the exam, you are required to participate in Continuing Education Units (CEUs) to stay certified. AHIMA requires 20 CEUs during your two-year recertification cycle while the AAPC requires 36 CEUs. Remember to take advantage of any on-the-job training in your organization as these may count as CEUs. - Agbayani P. Pingol II