Secrets to Landing Your First Coding Job


Vol. 18 •Issue 18 • Page 12
Secrets to Landing Your First Coding Job

We interviewed five newly-hired coders. None had their CCS or CPC credentials; none had real coding experience. All landed great coding jobs. Find out how.

We know. You can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. Well ADVANCE put out a call to new hires who recently landed their first coding jobs to find out: What did they do? What were their secrets?

The results may surprise you. Of the five new coders we interviewed, from a 22-year-old recent grad to a 62-year-old second careerist, none had the necessary certified coding specialist (CCS) or certified professional coder (CPC) credentials; none had a single day of salaried coding experience, yet all landed their dream coding jobs in less than a year.

How did they do it? To find out, first read the sidebar “How Employers Hire,” and familiarize yourself with trends A through E. Then get ready for some tough love answers on why these coders got hired over you.

Secret #1

They got their foot in the door—and one up on you. You’re probably cringing at the words “entry-level.” You’ve already finished a coding program and received your CCS or registered health information technician (RHIT) credential; you shouldn’t have to start at the bottom, right?

Well it turns out getting into a hospital or physician’s office entry-level might just be the smartest thing you could do. Take 29-year-old Karen Pope, CMA (AAMA), CCA, CPC-H. At age 24, after working 4 years as a medical office receptionist, Pope decided to get into HIM and started as a file clerk at Caldwell Memorial Hospital, Lenoir, NC.

Pope proved herself quickly, moved up to emergency room (ER) outpatient assembly and when a coding position opened up, she was asked to take it on.

Did you catch that? She was asked to take it on.

As far as then-HIM supervisor Karen Coffey, CPC, CCS, was concerned, Pope’s no coding

experience, no education and no credentials paled in the face of her work ethic and track record. “We hired from outside in the past and got burned. Bad,” Coffey said. “Just because they have credentials doesn’t mean they’ve followed the best coding practices. It’s like grabbing out of a grab bag” (see trends A, B and E).

Then there is 24-year-old Jenny Amador, CPC, who used an entry-level position as a more strategic move to launch her coding career. While taking medical billing/coding classes at a technical institute at night, Amador applied for a full-time, entry-level demographics job at a large radiology group. “I saw it as a way to get into coding,” she said.

While there, Amador asked to try coding every chance she got, and when a position opened up 1 year later, Amador was hired. She is now a coding specialist at CIPROMS South Medical Billing in Tampa, FL.

If you aren’t paying attention to this, you’re missing a key point: While you’re turning your nose up at entry-level positions in search of your ideal coding job, it may never come. It’s already being filled internally by the clerk or biller the employer knows. It looks like you need to get your foot in, or you may never see past the door.

You can do this many ways: by applying for entry-level positions, taking on an internship or volunteering. Consider in the 11 years Peter Micallef has been the director of medical records at Victory Memorial Hospital, New York City, every single one of the 11 coders he’s hired started as his intern. There’s also an added bonus to this: while moving up the coding ladder, both Pope and Amador got all of their credentials for free, paid for by their employers.

Secret #2

They went where the employers are. What if we told you we knew a place where each month, 20 or so employers from your area gathered together and talked about job opportunities they had available? Well, there is. It’s called your local American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) or American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) chapter. That’s where the employers are. That’s where you should be.

Marlene Barletta, CPC-A, was in her late 40s when telecommunications layoffs brought her to the coding program at Hillsborough Community College, Tampa, FL. With the hope of meeting more people in the coding world, Barletta joined her local AAPC chapter and received her CPC-A.

Barletta lacked experience, but just 2 months into her job search an opening came to her—literally—through an e-newsletter from her local chapter. Barletta was in the loop, and the employer she applied to, Lynn Reedy, CPC, director of coding services at CIPROMS South Medical Billing and chapter board member, recognized her name.

“That gave her a step up,” Reedy said about Barletta. “She was already a member of the professional association, certified and taking part in all of the local chapter meetings. That’s what gave her the biggest edge” (see trends A and D).

Attend your local chapter meetings and you’ll have a dozen informal “interviews” with a dozen potential employers all at one time—and just remember: even if they aren’t hiring, they’ll more than likely know someone who is (see trend C).

Secret #3

They left their marks. There is some very crucial glue that holds the first two secrets together: each of the coders gave 100 percent every step of the way.

You’re not going to get anywhere if you start entry-level and act like you could care less, or show up to the local chapter meetings and hide in the back. These coders showed their desire for coding the whole way through, and in doing so, made themselves memorable (see trends A and E).

“Karen [Pope] took pride in everything she did, regardless if it was filing a sheet of paper or putting away a record,” Coffey said. “Anybody you hire in HIM has to take it seriously, because people’s lives rely on it; and if they can’t do a small thing well, you certainly don’t want to give them more responsibility.”

Giving 100 percent starts at your first coding class. Megan Liebner left her mark on HIM Program Director Susan Scully at Burlington County College, Pemberton, NJ, and when a job opened at Scully’s hospital, she urged Liebner to apply.

At age 22, Liebner is now a non-credentialed coder at Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills, NJ, and able to say she landed her first coding job even before graduating. Remember, in this career employers and instructors talk (see trend C), and you want to be the over-achieving coder they’re bragging about.

Secret #4

They created value in the little they had. Most of the coders came into the coding world with little to no tangible value—so they made some, using any and every soft skill they had.

Don’t have experience? Think again. What 49-year-old Barletta lacked in coding experience she sure had in life experiences; and she did a fantastic job translating it. She used her 7 years working from home to show she is an independent worker; she focused only on prior duties that required accuracy and attention to detail; and she described herself as a natural perfectionist—all of the traits a good coder would need.

Reedy, her soon-to-be employer, noticed. “I am looking for things that indicate to me you’re a problem solver and self-motivated; we can’t stand behind you with a whip,” Reedy said. “You really need to think: ÔWhat does this employer want?'”

In Liebner’s case, rather than just saying she “worked at ShopRite” she described how her job as front-end manager gave her leadership skills and initiative. Have passion but nothing else? Reedy said to mention in your cover letter why you want to be a coder. Employers love passion, and they’ll take notice (see trend E).

Secret #5

They took their careers into their own hands. Take 62-year-old Diane Aden. If anyone should have given up on the job search, it was her. When most of her friends were retiring, Aden left human resources to start a career in coding. She took certification courses at Career Coders and was eager to get hired. But with no credentials, no experience and no network to speak of, Aden hit wall after wall. “My family watched my frustration and suggested I let the coding go,” she said. “I wouldn’t give in.”

Aden instead noted the areas she had nothing and made something. She needed proof of her coding skills, so she got her CPC-A—and considering 80 percent of CPC-As work in coding or billing jobs within a year of passing the exam, this put clear stock in her hiring potential.

She needed the experience, so she volunteered wherever she could: for 2 days at an orthodontist office, for a few weeks with an auditor, “anything to get closer to coding. Did I need the salary? Yes; but I knew I wouldn’t get one until I did this. I practically begged: ÔWhat can I do? Can I clean your floor so I can see how your office works?'” she said, laughing.

Aden also treated her job search like a second job, scheduling it in between her part-time job, study time and practice tests to equal a full 9 to 5 workday. And, by hitting on hiring trends D and E, this same woman who spent close to a year hitting dead ends watched as the interviews began. A few months later, she was hired as a medical coder/charge poster at Rocky Mountain Associates, Loveland, CO.

The Secret Formula

So, is there a secret formula to all of this? There seems to be, and it’s this: rather than fighting the system, work with it; and it in turn will work for you.

As you’ll notice, none of these stories involve a 6-week, fly-by-night coding course and a 2-week job search to land the ideal coding job and work remotely from home! All of these coders had real expectations and high respect for the profession and because of this, they didn’t expect it to be easy (“and isn’t it a compliment to the profession to be that respected?” asked Susan Parker, MEd, RHIA, owner of Seagate Consulting).

You already know the secrets. Perhaps the biggest secret of all is that you need to stop fighting the path and start following it. These coders didn’t sit around wondering why the path to employment was so hard, they took it: they got that credential; started entry-level; volunteered to get experience; joined the local chapter and networked their way up—until the system, in turn, worked for them. The bottom line is simple, said Jean Kitzmiller, an experienced coder at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines, IA: Getting a job in coding depends on how badly you want to be a coder. n

Ainsley Maloney is an assistant editor with ADVANCE.

Measuring Your Experience

Volunteer or internship work can be transformed into measurable coding experience by following a simple formula detailed by Patt Peterson, MA, RHIA, director of education at the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) in the article “What’s Your Flight Plan?” Peterson advises keeping a coding log to track the total number of codes that are accurate, divided by the total number of codes discovered for that coding set, to create accuracy rates that allow your resume to look like this: Objective: New certified coder with an inpatient coding accuracy rate of 94 percent (per 13 charts per hour) seeks employment in a fast paced HIM department.

To access the article, visit www.ahima.org/academics under HIM Education Reports.

How Employers Hire

If you want to effectively sell yourself to an employer, you’ll need to learn a little about your buyer. We spoke to dozens of employers and found five trends they stick to when hiring. Use them to your advantage and you might get better hits:

A: If your name looks vaguely familiar; you’ll have one up on the competition.

B: They prefer to hire from within. They’ll already know your work ethic, attendance, performance and that you’ve already been through the background checks.

C: They talk first, post later. Employers with an opening will speed dial all of their coding colleagues to get a referral long before (or if ever) posting to the outside world.

D: They want to see you’re dedicated to coding as a profession. They want you to be a member of the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) or the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) and get credentialed; it shows them you view this as a career and will be a continual learner.

E: Personality and a passion for coding can ultimately win them over.

—By Ainsley Maloney

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