Addressing another health care shortage: medical coders

Jennifer Lubell , Contributing News Writer

Across the nation, studies show there’s a 30% shortage in medical coders. More than ever, health care organizations need coders as they ramp up their own growth strategies.

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“It’s not necessarily a significant turnover issue as much as it is growth, as we need additional coders to support how much we have grown over the last few years,” said Rhonda Hale, vice president of finance for Baptist Health Medical Group, which delivers care to patients in Kentucky and Southern Indiana.

The medical group partnered with AAPC—formerly known as the American Academy of Professional Coders and the world’s largest training and credentialing organization for coders. With AAPC’s help, Baptist Health created its own “university” to certify coders from its own employee base and a few external candidates. It recently graduated 18 of the 20 that enrolled in the program, offering them a work-from-home opportunity to grow their career.

While many health care organizations finance the study material and exam costs, “what makes our program unique is that accepted candidates would continue to receive a paycheck while studying” and then sitting for the AAPC certified professional coder exam, explained Hale.

The medical group invested in its most valuable asset—its people—while creating a pipeline of candidates to support the growing organization amid a time of health care staffing shortages.

“It was a true win-win for both our employees and for Baptist Health,” Hale said.

Baptist Health Medical Group is a member of the AMA Health System Program, which provides enterprise solutions to equip leadership, physicians and care teams with resources to help drive the future of medicine.

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The program grew out of a need to expand the available pool of coders, explained Danyel Clay, the medical group’s vice president of revenue cycle and coding.

Before COVID-19 hit, coders could be recruited at local colleges and Baptist Health Medical Group would provide externships. “But that all dried up” when the pandemic hit, Clay said. The coding industry also reflects an aging population.

“Many coders who are now on the job plan to retire in five years or less,” Clay noted. “And it’s very difficult to find coders for specialty areas such as cardiology.”

Baptist Health Medical Group is growing at a rapid pace, with plans to hire additional new physicians, and an identified need of one coder for every 10 physicians, said Clay. Coding help was needed across Baptist Health, from its 20 rural health clinics to its ambulance services and hospital revenue cycle departments.

During a brainstorming session, Clay and Hale thought: “Why don’t we create our own coding course?” So they took steps to partner with AAPC, which provided the tools, coursework, and exams, and scored the tests.

Learn more about coding resources available from the AMA.

The idea drew interest from 300 candidates. Among these enrollees, 20 were selected to take part.

Employees often want to advance themselves professionally, but can’t afford to quit their jobs to return to a classroom environment to pursue greater opportunities. Some may have at-home obligations.

“This is the kind of opportunity that can keep people engaged in the workforce and then … advance their career to a higher pay level,” said Hale. The medical group paid the participants to study, she continued.

“We provided resources to them to teach them necessary components of the exam and to help them prepare for the exam,” Hale said. Internal candidates kept their current salary, but were paid the apprentice rate during the designated coding education time.

The health system created a group of trainers to work with the participants and prepare for success. The time to pass the exam can be lengthy, up to a year, “and we wanted to accelerate that as much as possible,” said Hale.

The fact that 300 people initially applied for 20 slots speaks to the desire of the staff to progress in their careers.

“That's the most awesome part to me,” said Hale.

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One of the participants, a woman who worked in a cardiology office, graduated and attained her dream of being a cardiology office coder in an environment where she was already familiar with the medical terms, said Clay.

The AMA and Relias have co-developed education delivering a total of 60 courses associated with 13 packages focused on various Current Procedural Terminology (CPT®) specialty and topic education. Learn more about the CPT coding education offered by the AMA and Relias.

In looking at benchmarks, the 18 additional certified coders put Baptist Health Medical Group more in line with the desired ratio. This should reduce charge lag and improve overall collection time for the organization, said Hale.

“As claims go out the door faster, we're receiving cash quicker. So it's an almost immediate return,” she said.

People are continuing to show interest in the program, noted Clay. “To this day, I have people calling and asking me when the next program will start. Other departments are chiming in that they’d like to put dibs on a few future grads.”