Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) vs. Medical Coder

One of the fastest-growing industries in the United States in healthcare. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS Dec. 2019) found that 12 of the top 20 fastest-growing occupations were related to healthcare, but not all aspiring professionals in this field want to become doctors or nurses. For those interested in the administrative aspects of healthcare delivery with lighter clinical responsibilities, becoming a certified medical assistant (CMA) or a medical coder are two high-growth career fields. Both of these positions allow people to provide vital support to patients and other healthcare personnel, yet don’t require the same commitment of time and money necessary to become a licensed clinician.

However, while both CMAs and medical coders help doctors, healthcare staff, and patients on a routine basis, they do so in different ways. According to the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC 2017), medical coding is the process of translating medical diagnoses, treatments, equipment, and other aspects of healthcare delivery into universal alphanumeric codes. These are used to keep detailed medical records and to track all healthcare activities for eventual billing purposes. It’s important to add that medical billers occupy a related but separate position. Medical coders use languages including CPT®, ICD-10-CM, and HCPCS Level II, whereas medical billers process claims and follow up with insurance companies. Sometimes, a healthcare professional may be trained as both a medical biller and coder. Overall, medical coders transcribe doctor’s notes, lab test orders, diagnostic image requests, and other aspects of healthcare into a universal language, ensuring the accuracy and comprehensiveness of this translation.

By contrast, the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) reports that medical assistants have more clinical and patient-facing responsibilities than medical coders. They work directly with physicians in taking medical histories; drawing blood; conducting basic lab tests; removing sutures; and performing other medical tasks. They also embrace administrative duties such as greeting patients, scheduling appointments, filing insurance forms, and handling bookkeeping, among many others. Additionally, medical assistants generally must have proper credentialing and many become certified medical assistants (CMAs) through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), whereas medical coders may voluntarily become certified through the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) or the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), among other organizations. Ultimately, CMAs and medical coders hold similar roles in that both of these types of professionals work in a healthcare setting to facilitate communication and improve patient services.

Here is a side-by-side comparison of the two professions, paying thought to salaries, career growth, certification, and education, among other considerations.

Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) Medical Coder
Number practicing in the United States The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2016) reports that there were 623,560 medical assistants employed throughout the country. The BLS (May 2016) reported that there are 200,140 medical records and health information technicians—an occupational category closely related to coding—employed in the U.S.
Pay BLS (May 2016): $15.17 per hour, or $31,540 per year (median pay); $15.79/hr. or $32,850 annually (average) BLS (May 2016): $18.29 per hour, or $38,040 per year (median pay); $19.93/hr. or $41,460 annually (average)
Expected job growth (2014-2024) 23 percent (BLS Dec. 2015) 15 percent (BLS Dec. 2015)
Projected number of new positions available by 2024 138,900 29,000
Meeting the Requirements
Degree requirements In order to be eligible to pursue certification, an aspiring CMA must have a degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Some employers only require a high school diploma and on-the-job training to work as a medical coder. That said, many prefer either a postsecondary diploma, an associate degree in the field of health informatics, or professional certification in a coding system.
Degrees available Aspiring CMAs must obtain either an associate or bachelor’s degree accredited by the aforementioned institutions; however, some may choose to pursue a master’s degree to make them more competitive in the future, enhancing their salary prospects and leadership candidacy. Aspiring medical coders may choose to pursue a postsecondary certificate or an associate degree. Others may complete a bachelor’s degree in health information management or healthcare administration to make them more competitive, although this is generally not required.
Program details An associate degree program takes around two years, while a bachelor’s program requires four. Programs generally include hands-on experience through a clinical practicum or similar project. A postsecondary certificate or diploma in medical coding takes between four and 15 months; an associate degree takes around two years; and a bachelor’s degree takes up to four years.
Program accreditation AAMA provides that in order to be eligible for certification as a CMA, an individual must complete a program that is accredited by a body recognized by the United States Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). The two predominant accreditation agencies in this field are the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). The Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM) is the main accrediting organization for medical coding programs nationwide.
Three schools that offer in-person programs The following three schools offer campus-based programs in medical assisting: For other options, please check out the medical assisting programs page. The following three schools offer campus-based programs in medical coding: For more information, please visit the medical coding programs page.
Three schools that offer online programs The following three schools offer programs in medical assisting online: The following three schools offer programs in medical coding online:
Certification and Licensing
Certification In order to work as a CMA, an individual must obtain certification through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). Certification is not necessary to work as a medical coder. That said, aspiring medical coders may choose to pursue certification through the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC); the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA); or the Practice Management Institute, among other organizations.
Licensing An aspiring CMA must meet state-based prerequisites in order to achieve licensure, one of which is typically AAMA certification. A license is not required to work as a basic medical coder. Those working as a cancer registrar may need a license in some states, as well as the certified tumor registrar (CTR) certification.
Licensing agency The agency responsible for licensing CMAs varies based on the state (e.g., Washington). Please check with local Departments of Health for details. Because licensure is not required, no state licensing agency exists for medical coders.
Re-certification A CMA must re-certify every 60 months with 60 “points” (i.e., continuing education in various educational categories). Please check out the AAMA Re-certification Handbook for details. The requirements for re-certification vary and ultimately depend on the source of the original certification (AAPC, AHIMA, etc.)
Specialization CMAs will generally focus on one of two main areas; namely, clinical or administrative. That said, some choose to specialize in specific fields of medicine, such as obstetrics, podiatry, internal medicine, or chiropractic care. Medical coders may focus on specialties within the field and pursue additional certifications to demonstrate proficiency. These additional specializations include the following, among others:
  • Dermatology
  • Chiropractic care
  • General surgery
  • Gastroenterology
  • Urology
  • Pediatrics
  • Hematology and oncology
  • Anesthesia and pain management
Details About the Job
Practice framework Because CMAs work in an assisting capacity, they generally find themselves working in a setting as part of a larger team by helping patients, as well as doctors, nurses, and other healthcare staff. Medical coders work in an administrative office setting, acting as a liaison between the healthcare office, patients, and the billing department. Furthermore, medical coders, while not responsible for providing patient care, will work directly with healthcare staff to ensure that records are accurately completed and maintained.
Skills necessary for success CMAs should have the following skills in order to ensure their success in the workplace:
  • Patience
  • Attention to detail
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Analytical skills
  • Technical skills
Additionally, medical assistants must have a strong grasp on anatomy, medical terminology, and other related subjects.

In order to succeed as a medical coder, an individual should possess the following attributes, as described by the BLS:

  • Integrity
  • Analytical skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Technical skills
  • Interpersonal skills

Medical coders are also typically fluent in one or more popular coding systems (e.g., CPT®, ICD-10-CM, and HCPCS Level II).

Common practice settings Although many CMAs work in a doctor’s office or clinic, others may work in a public or private hospital or other healthcare facility. According to the BLS (Dec. 2015), 38 percent of medical information professionals work in hospitals, 21 percent work in the offices of physicians, seven percent work in nursing care facilities, six percent work in administrative and support services, and five percent work in professional, scientific, and technical services.