If you’re looking to take the next steps in your medical coding and billing career after finishing your training, you’re probably thinking about which certifications you should get to maximize your potential in the job market. With several great certifications out there, it can be hard to decide which is the right one for your career. Here’s what you need to know.
What is the CPC (Certified Professional Coder) Certification?
The CPC certification is considered the gold standard for medical coding and billing professionals. This test measures your competency in coding, focusing on physician and non-physician providers, like nurses. Those who earn the CPC certification have proven that they have the skills to succeed as a professional coder and can confidently use CPT®, HCPCS Level II, ICD-10-CM codes.
The CPC exam includes 100 multiple-choice questions and you’re given four hours to complete the exam.
This certification is offered through the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) and can be taken online or at an in-person testing center.
To maintain your certification once it’s earned, you have to be a current member of the AAPC and complete 40 continuing education units (CEUs) every two years.
While you can take this certification exam if you’re brand new to the field, because you need at least 2 years of work experience to become a fully certified professional coder, it’s often a better choice for someone who has already been working in the field or in healthcare in general.
What is the CCA (Certified Coding Associate) Certification?
Another highly recognized credential, the Certified Coding Associate (CCA) certification is offered through the American Health Information Management Association. Those who have CCA certification have proven that they are competent coders in all settings, including hospitals and physician’s offices.
The CCA exam covers 105 questions and you’re given two hours to complete the test.
The CCA exam can only be taken in person at a testing location.
To maintain your certification, you’ll need to recertify every two years. This involves completing at least 20 continuing education units (CEUs) and paying the recertification fee.
This certification is a great starting place for someone brand new to coding or the healthcare industry in general.
CPC vs CCA: Which is a better certification?
Neither the CPC or CCA certification are necessarily better. They both can help you take the steps toward becoming an entry-level professional coder. However, there are some differences in the exams that can help you decide which credential is the better one for you.
Exam requirements and details
In order to be eligible to take the CPC exam, you’ll need to
- Have some education or work experience relevant to the credential. This can include taking specific medical coding courses or experience working in the healthcare industry.
- Be an AAPC member. You’ll need to be an active member of the AAPC before you’ll be allowed to schedule your exam.
- Pay the testing fee. It’s $399 to take the test the first time. There may be additional costs if you need to retake the exam.
Once you’ve passed the exam, you’re considered a CPC-A – which is basically an apprentice coder. You’ll then need to get 2 years of work experience under your belt to be considered a full CPC certified coder.
In order to be eligible to take the CCA exam, you’ll need to
- Have a high school diploma or equivalent.
- Pay the testing fee. It’s $299 for non-AHIMA members and $199 for members.
And, while not required, it’s also recommended that you
- Have 6 months experience directly applying codes or
- Have completed an AHIMA-approved coding program or
- Have completed another program that covers anatomy & physiology, medical terminology, basic ICD diagnostic/procedural and basic CPT® coding
Salary expectations and job availability
Both the CCA and CPC certifications prepare you to become an entry-level professional coder. That means that either certification can prepare you for many of the same jobs. The only difference is that some employers may prefer one certification over another when they’re hiring.
As far as salary goes, those with either certification make around the same amount. However, according to ZipRecruiter, those with the CPC-A credential earned an average of $29 per hour in the United States in 2023, while those with a CCA credential earned $22 per hour.
Overall, CCAs and CPC-As will have many of the same job opportunities. However, some employers may prefer one certification over the other. When you’re searching for jobs – or even before you decide to enroll in a medical coding and billing training program – take a close look at the job description for coding positions. They’ll give you a good idea of what kind of roles you’re more likely to get with each credential.
In general, as an entry-level medical coding professional, you’re likely to find job opportunities in hospitals, doctors’ offices, insurance companies, and other healthcare organizations.
How to choose between the CPC and the CCA
If you’re not sure which credential is right for you, consider the following.
- Review requirements for different coding jobs. Take note of the jobs you’re most interested in. What are the common requirements employers are looking for? Do they mention any specific credentials?
- Understand the eligibility requirements for each exam. Do you meet the requirements? Are you able to get the experience or education that the exam requires?
- The cost of the exams. The CCA is a bit more affordable at $299, while the CPC exam is $399. Choose the exam which best fits your budget and your goals.
- Your curriculum. If you’re currently enrolled in a medical coding program, review your curriculum to see which exam it best aligns with. Are you focusing more on billing? On inpatient or outpatient coding?
- Determine which organization you want to be part of. While AHIMA doesn’t require you to be a member to take the CCA exam, AAPC does require membership for those who want to take the CPC exam. Review each organization to get an idea of which feels like a better fit for you and your career goals. Will you get more support with AHIMA? Does AAPC offer more networking opportunities?
What about the CCS or CCS-P?
The CCS and CCS-P exams are not considered entry-level coding exams. They are fill-in-the-blank and much more difficult to pass, which is why they are only recommended for coders who have a few years of on-the-job experience.
Are there any employers that will hire me before I get certified?
In some cases, employers may reimburse you for ongoing credentialing or allow you to earn a specific credential within 6 months to a year of your hire date (if you have the CCA and need the CPC, for example). Currently, being nationally certified as a coder is not a requirement of all employers, but the industry is trending in that direction.
Even with employers that don’t require certification, having credentials on your resume can help you stand out from other applicants, so it can definitely be worth the effort and expense to get certified.
Which organization is better, AHIMA or AAPC?
Neither AHIMA or AAPC is better than the other. If you look at the differences in what is offered with the membership for each organization, as well as the difference in the certification exams themselves (the format, the price, the types of questions), you may decide you have a preference between the two organizations.
When trying to decide which is better for you, look at things like membership fees, what kind of support they offer, what opportunities you’ll have for upskilling and networking as a member, etc.
Which certification do most CareerStep coding graduates take?
Every learner has different goals and either the CCA or the CPC exam could help them take the next step toward a career in medical coding. However, as part of our Medical Coding and Billing Program, learners are prepared to take the CPC exam and a voucher for that exam is included in the cost of the program. With that in mind, many of our learners are likely to lean toward taking the CPC because they feel better prepared and have a voucher to cover the cost of the exam.
I eventually want to work as an inpatient coder. Which exam more closely matches my goals?
Typically entry-level coders begin as outpatient coders. Many times outpatient coders move into inpatient coding once they get more onsite experience, but inpatient coding is generally considered a more advanced and experienced level of coding. Because of that, there are no entry-level credentials that represent a high-level understanding of inpatient coding.
Most employers will expect you to begin as an outpatient coder; however, if they know you have the inpatient training as well, they may be more likely to hire you with plans to cross-train you in inpatient coding later. For that reason, a CPC credential or a CCA credential will both put you in the right position to be certified as an outpatient coder first with the potential to move into inpatient training later as you gain more experience and additional credentials.
Read more: Medical Coding and Billing Career Paths
Which credentials should I get once I have a few years of experience?
There are many credentials available through both AHIMA and AAPC that you can choose to pursue after you have had a few years of experience. A few examples include the CCS, CCS-P, CPC-H, and specialty exams. These exams represent a high-level understanding of medical coding in various settings and practices. Many coders maintain credentials in both organizations, and generally the more credentials you have the better. For example, you could take the CPC exam through AAPC to start, and then once you have more on-the-job experience decide to sit for the CCS exam through AHIMA.
Prepare for a medical coding career online
If you’re brand new to the world of medical coding, getting some training before you start applying for jobs or sitting for certification exams can be extremely helpful – and sometimes necessary. With CareerStep’s online Medical Coding and Billing Training Program, you can learn the foundational coding and billing skills that can help you prepare to take the steps toward this new career – all on your schedule, from home. To learn more about how our online training works and what you’ll learn, reach out to us today at 1-800-411-7073!