Inaccurate coding remains a main cause of lost revenue for a medical practice, highlighting the value of an on-staff professional coder.
Skilled coders are in high demand, so recruiting and retaining the right candidate presents a challenge. The unemployment rate for coders saw a slight decrease from 6.6 percent in 2016 to 5.9 percent in 2017, according to AAPC’s 2017 Salary Survey of nearly 13,000 respondents. However, the average salary for all employed respondents grew 6 percent to $52,648, meaning employers will likely need to pay more to keep or attract coding talent.
“With the unemployment rate [for coders] so low, the job market for employers is more competitive,” says Raemarie Jimenez, CPC, vice president of membership and certification solutions at AAPC in Salt Lake City. “You are competing with other practices and other opportunities where [coders] have more options.”
Your current staff often can be the best source for new coding talent. “One thing you should look at is helping an internal person who you want to retain get those [coding] skills. Invest in [his or her] training,” says Laurie Morgan, MBA, partner and senior consultant at Capko & Morgan, a medical practice management consulting group based in California. “It’s not always that easy to find ways to give people career paths inside of a practice. This is one area where you really have an opportunity to do that.”
But if you lack that opportunity, you will need look externally and not only attract the most qualified candidates but also provide a competitive employment offer. Here are some tips to help ensure that you choose the right coder for your practice, and that the coder chooses you back.
Determine your coding needs
Because a coder can contribute at multiple stages during the revenue cycle, defining the coder’s role and responsibilities is the first step of the hiring process, Morgan says.
Morgan recommends practice leaders—which can include the practice manager or administrator, the practice owners, and the manager of the billing team—meet to align on what the coding job will entail and develop a comprehensive job description. “[They must decide] if this person is working only on coding or on billing as well,” she says.
A coder by trade, Astara Crews, CHC, CPC, director of regulatory affairs at ENT & Allergy Associates LLP., a group practice with offices in New Jersey and New York, says that the coder’s role often depends on a practice’s size and revenue because smaller practices tend not have the business need and/or resources to support distinct coding and billing roles.
But having a joint biller and coder role can be valuable to a practice. “Having [a biller] who is aware of the coding rules adds that extra layer of assurance that [claims] are not going out fraudulently,” Crews says.
Describe your ideal candidate
In order to screen in the best candidates, identify the qualifications and experience a coder must have to be successful in the coding position in addition to the soft skills needed to work effectively with other staff members.
Jimenez recommends limiting your scope to candidates with professional certification. “[Practices] are not giving enough weight to certifications. They will hire someone just to sit in that seat, thinking that [coding] is an easy job, and they don’t get well-trained individuals. If they’re certified, you know they’ve passed an exam showing competency.”
Keep in mind that individuals could have a compelling case for why they would excel in the position, even if their backgrounds do not exactly match the job requirements, Morgan says.
For example, do not discount candidates simply because their certifications are not specific to your practice’s setting or specialty. “If the candidate learned how to do coding successfully for several different specialties in the past, then that may be an indication that they will be very adept at learning a new specialty,” she says.
Furthermore, coders who are new to the industry can become valuable assets if training and supervision is available. “I used to work with coding externs who were completing a course and getting certified,” Jimenez says. “For me, it was beneficial [to host them] because they came with no bad habits, so I was able to teach them the way I wanted it done in our particular circumstance.”