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Dallas Morning News

Whenever a patient is treated for a virus, broken arm or heart ailment, there's a medical coder somewhere in every hospital, translating the doctor's diagnosis into a code and entering it into a computer.

"Every time a patient comes to the hospital, that service is coded," said Donna Olson, a registered health information administrator and director of health information management at Medical City Dallas Hospital. "The coder reviews all tests, diagnoses, results, medications and translates them to a numerical value."

Everyone from insurance companies to medical researchers uses the codes, making medical coders crucial to the financial operation of every hospital and doctor's office in the country.

Coders are in short supply.

"There were predictions made that by the year 2000, coders would be in the top 10 jobs needed for the country, and that has come true," Olson said.

Olson oversees 13 coders - and just hired one to fill a position that had been open for two years.

Rita Scichilone, director of coding products and services for the American Health Information Management Association, or AHIMA, said the shortage of coders is just as bad as the more publicized shortage of nurses.

"Quite honestly, it's not an easy job," Olson said. "I've trained nurses to do this job, and it takes them about a year before they become proficient. There are numerous governmental regulations that they have to have memorized to do this job."

Plus, coders need to complete at least a two-year certificate program in medical coding and are often expected to have a college degree as well.

According to a recent survey of members by the AHIMA, 37.9 percent had bachelor's degrees and 10.7 percent had a master's.

Once all the schooling is completed, optional certifications are available.

The coding associate certification is for entry-level coders, and the certified coding specialist, or CCS, title is for more advanced coders who have been in the field several years.

Copyright © 2003 Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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