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August 2009

The Importance of a Coding Certificate

By Pamela Fisher, CCS, CCS-P

“To get certified or to not get certified, that is the question.”

The reality is that the need for attaining coding certification is growing every day. Employers value credentials. A recent American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) survey found that employers in the health care field place a high value on certification. Sixty-eight percent of employers reported that they chose a certified candidate over one who was not certified. Fifty-three percent consider certification when promoting employees over equally skilled and experienced workers. In addition to the perceived value of certification by employers, certified coding professionals report earning more than their non-certified peers.

There are two primary organizations that coders can become certified through, AHIMA and the American Association of Professional Coders (AAPC). Each organization has several certifications that coders can attain, but how do you know which certification is best for you? 

AHIMA’s mission is “To be the professional community that improves health care by advancing best practices and standards for health information management, and the trusted source for education, research, and professional credentialing.” AHIMA offers the Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA), Registered Health Information Technologist (RHIT), Certified Coding Specialist (CCS), Certified Coding Specialist – Physician-Based (CCS-P), and Certified Coding Associate (CCA) certifications.  

  • RHIA requires a bachelor’s degree from an accredited HIM program. RHIAs are experts in managing patient health information and medical records, administering computer information systems, collecting and analyzing patient data, and using classification systems and medical terminologies. 
  • RHIT requires an associate’s degree from an accredited HIM program. RHITs ensure the quality of medical records by verifying completeness, accuracy, and proper entry into computer systems. They assemble and analyze patient data for the purpose of improving patient care or controlling costs. 
  • CCS demonstrates a proficiency in classifying medical data from patient records with advanced coding and analysis skills, generally in a hospital setting. 
  • CCS-P specializes in settings such as physician offices, group practices, multi-specialty clinics, or specialty centers. CCS-Ps are experts in health information documentation, data integrity, and quality. 
  • CCA is an entry-level credential that distinguishes new coders in the job market.

Currently, the CCS, CCS-P, and CCA certifications do not require a college degree, only a high school diploma or equivalent education. AHIMA is currently evaluating whether to elevate the requirement for their coding credentials to require an associate’s degree.

AAPC provides certified credentials to medical coders in physician offices, hospital outpatient facilities, ambulatory surgical centers, and in payer organizations. AAPC offers the Certified Professional Coder (CPC), Certified Professional Coder- Outpatient Hospital (CPC-H), Certified Professional Coder – payer (CPC-P), and certified interventional radiology cardiovascular coder (CIRCC). 

  • CPC demonstrates a broad, thorough knowledge and expertise in reviewing and assigning the correct coding of physician services, procedures and diagnosis for medical claims.
  • CPC-H validates proficiency in accurately coding outpatient facility/hospital services.
  • CPC-concentrates on coding and billing after the bills have been submitted to the payer.
  • CIRCC specializes in interventional radiology and cardiovascular coding and charging.

AAPC recommends that applicants have an associate’s degree, but it is not a requirement. At least two years medical coding experience is required for the CPC, CPC-H, and CPC-P. Examinees without this experience will be awarded the designation of apprentice until certain requirements have been met.

There has been much debate over which organization and which certification is better. There is a lot of information out there and each individual should make their own decision as to which certification is best for them. The bottom line is that any coding certification is valuable, it just depends on what type of setting one wishes to work in. 

A survey I conducted of several local North Carolina hospitals shows that most are now requiring a certification in order to be considered for a coding position. Typically the RHIA, RHIT or CCS certification is required. Some hospitals are now requiring that their uncertified coders become certified in order to keep their jobs, while some will not require previously hired coders to obtain credentials.  One Raleigh hospital surveyed made an interesting observation that the Triangle area (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) has an abundance of certified coders making it easy to choose a qualified candidate. There is plenty of competition out there, especially in this economy.

To get certified or to not get certified, the answer seems like an easy one to me!

Editor’s Note: Pamela Fisher, CCS, CCS-P, is a coding and auditing consultant in Apex, NC for Clinical-Insights.

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