Breaking the Codes: Preparing for Changes to Medical Coding Language

Record keeping in the healthcare industry has come a long way from mountains of paper files. With the passage of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA), the industry moved towards greater computerization of diagnostic and treatment data. This has resulted in the development of a number of technical codes to identify various procedures. It has improved efficiency, but also created a complexity that sometimes appears intimidating. Indeed, people who are starting out in the medical coding profession are looking at an entirely foreign language and one about to go through significant changes.

Medical Code Complexity

The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, commonly known as the ICD codes, were created to better classify diseases, symptoms, and procedures. The mainstay code has been the ICD-9, which also indicates cause of death. This set has close to 17,000 different codes and by itself ICD-9 is difficult to master. A new set, the ICD-10, is to be implemented by October, 2014 and has more than 150, 000 codes. The newer set is more in tune with all the changes in medical treatment and diagnosis which have happened over the years.

This is good for the medical profession but a potential nightmare for a medical coder who is just starting out, as it means learning thousands of new codes in addition to what is already known. These new codes make it reasonable to suggest that understanding ICD-10 is comparable to learning a new language. The pressure to be proficient is great because accuracy is so terribly important.

Learning the Language

It all sounds a little grim right now but there is good news. There's plenty of time to learn because these new codes will not be mandatory for over a year. The medical coding associations have not been caught napping, and the AAPC and American Health Information Association (AHIMA) are both offering a number of course options to help a medical coder get acquainted with the new terminology and codes.

A new medical coder must be well-versed in the fundamentals of the subject matter in order to successfully understand the ICD-10 code books. Just as a person learns Latin to later become fluent in Spanish, anatomy is a fundamental course for proficiency with ICD-10. The better a beginning medical coder understands anatomy, the easier those new codes will be to learn. Physiology is also a subject where familiarity leads to mastery.

A beginner should not rely on simple rote memory to master ICD-10; there is simply too much to know. In fact, time might be better spent learning the software that will be used to input and interpret the codes, and especially the primary ICD resources. The latter is particularly noteworthy. There's too much information to expect a new medical coder to become an authority without a lot of intensive training. Being able to work with the primary sources can help in overcoming some initial challenges, allowing hands-on experience and additional training combined to accelerate the overall learning process.

Take Advantage of Any Training Offered

Medical coding is technical language and that does require specialized training, though not for great lengths of time. Fortunately for beginners, training programs leading to the Certified Professional Coder (CPC®) designation are steeped in classes geared towards better ICD-10 understanding. Professionally, it’s a great idea to study for the CPC® exam, but a beginner has to realize that he or she must go the extra step. The AAPC and AHIMA both offer extra courses in coding with emphasis on the ICD-10. A beginner ought to take full advantage of any professionally designed training, and not delay taking the courses.

There is a very firm occupational fact about the new medical codes: those who are not knowledgeable in ICD-10 codes by 2014 will find their occupational skill set is obsolete. A firm grasp on anatomy and physiology, as well as being able to readily access any primary sources, will effectively guide the beginner through the medical coding transition about to take place. Moreover, if the beginner is willing to commit to a career of continual education and skills updating, that person should discover that while changes do come in a technical career such as medical coding, they need not be traumatic occurrences.

About the writer

Elyse Hartman is the owner of an educational website for medical coding. She welcomes your questions at support[at]medicalcodingtrainingcertification.com

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