June 27, 2006 at 05:08 AM EDT
Job Market is Ripe for Career in Health Information Coding

TAMPA, Fla., June 27 /PRNewswire/ -- The national healthcare labor shortage, coupled with an impending overhaul of the existing International Coding Directory (ICD), is creating a job-seekers market for professional coders, according to the national staffing specialist Kforce Professional Staffing ( http://www.kforce.com ).

The number of job openings for health information professionals has doubled in the past two years, and salaries have also increased.

"Candidates are in high demand now and we anticipate this situation will become even more acute in the future," says Sam Farrell, group president for Kforce's Health Information Management Division. "Hospitals already find it difficult to meet their needs for inpatient coders, outpatient coders and coding managers, and now will be faced with the need to find staff who are prepared for the new ICD-10 standards."

Accurate and timely coding is a critical component of the hospital revenue cycle, paving the way for speedier and more complete reimbursement. Coders are key to the process, reviewing and analyzing patients' records and translating each procedure to the appropriate ICD code. Health insurance companies then reimburse hospitals for patient services based on the codes assigned. If charts are miscoded due to a lack of coder experience or are waiting to be coded due to a shortage of coders, services may either be mis- billed or billing to the insurer will be delayed. These situations result in either lost or delayed revenue for the hospital.

"Coders used to be viewed simply as librarians of data," Farrell says. "Today, hospital administrators are focused on profitability and thus the value of experienced coders is elevated."

Adding to the already high demand for coders, the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics will introduce a complete overhaul of the current ICD-9 coding system to replace it with ICD-10, requiring new technology. Also, ICD-10's diagnostic classification set (ICD-10-CM) includes about 120,000 codes, which is almost 10 times the number used under ICD-9. Coders will need to learn those new codes, as well as the procedure usage set (ICD- 10-PCS), which has more than 200,000 codes -- about 50 times as many as ICD-9.

For coders who have been in the field for 10 to 15 years, these changes may be difficult to assimilate. Experienced coders may not have the desire to learn an entirely different system and will choose to retire. With the already shallow talent pool, the transition to ICD-10 will make it even more critical for hospitals as they prepare for the transition and its staffing implications.

"We believe hospitals will look increasingly to staffing firms as partners during this transition, for both temporary and permanent coder needs," Farrell says.

Individuals considering a position in the health information profession can expect better compensation than in years past. Salaries have jumped in the last six years. According to the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), the number of positions with annual salaries exceeding $40,000 has nearly doubled.

In fact 62 percent of coding professionals earn between $30,000 and $50,000 per year. Nearly half (49 percent) of managers earn between $40,000 and $60,000. Salaries are even higher for consultants contracted by a staffing firm.

"Kforce coders' salaries can range from $52,000 to $64,000 a year, and can be even higher for a director-level position," Farrell says.

Many coders choose contract positions as a career destination, as opposed to a stepping stone to a permanent position with a hospital. In fact, the average Kforce HIM consultant has been with Kforce between three and five years. In addition to higher salary potential, consulting has other benefits.

"Consultants can leave office politics behind," Farrell says. "That's a refreshing change for people who have spent five to 10 years battling red tape."

Contract employees also have the opportunity to travel and learn at some of the nation's best healthcare facilities. And, as more hospitals move to electronic medical records, contract coders will have new opportunities to work from home and telecommute via secure virtual private networks (VPNs) with access to a hospital's system. Telecommuting is already popular in the transcription arena of health information management with 80-90 percent being done remotely.

"Telecommuting is a huge benefit to both the hospital and candidate, because no one is tied to a geographic location," Farrell says. "Hospitals can hire the best talent throughout the U.S., and candidates can work for Top 25 hospitals, no matter where they live."

While coding is a very attractive field, it is one that relies heavily on experience.

"Hospitals rely on staffing firms to provide experienced consultants with at least three years of acute care experience," Farrell says.

However, there are several ways for new coders to gain experience. Inexperienced coders often begin in release-of-information or assembly analysis to get their foot in the door with hospitals.

Those interested in coding careers should also check into AHIMA, which has state and local chapter programs that offer guidance and tips, including an online training program and mentors for student associates.

"The best way to get hired is to get a degree through a two- or four-year program," Farrell says. "These degree programs offer internships, which can help coders begin building their resumes."

Kforce (NASDAQ:KFRC) is a professional staffing firm providing flexible and permanent staffing solutions for organizations in the skill areas of health and life sciences, technology and finance & accounting. Backed by more than 1,800 core employees, Kforce operates with 75 offices in 43 markets. For more information, please visit the Web site at http://www.kforce.com .

Source: Kforce Professional Staffing

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