If you’re thinking about pursuing a healthcare job, you may be considering medical assisting or medical coding and billing.
A medical assistant works alongside a physician to give care to patients and helps with administrative tasks like scheduling appointments and handling billing. Medical assistants usually work in clinics, doctors offices, and hospitals.
A medical coding and billing specialist, also known as a medical records specialist or medical coder, is someone who manages coding and billing in healthcare facilities to ensure that patients are charged and providers are reimbursed correctly.
This guide goes over similarities, differences, average salaries, education requirements, and more for medical assistants and medical coding and billing specialists to help you decide which is the better career for you.
Medical Assisting vs Medical Coding & Billing Overview
Though both are medical professions, there are key differences and similarities between the two.
Medical assistants may perform some billing and administrative work, but that is the only focus of a medical billing specialist. Medical assistants perform clinical tasks like taking vital signs, while medical billing specialists do not.
While medical assistants need to have a basic understanding of medical terminology, medical coders have to have an understanding of current procedural terminology, international classifications of diseases, and healthcare common procedure coding systems.
Here’s a quick overview of medical assistants vs medical coding and billing:
Medical Assistant Overview
Medical assistants—sometimes referred to as medical assistant technicians—spend most of their time doing administrative tasks and helping with patient care. Responsibilities of a medical assistant include:
- Taking vital signs
- Giving injections
- Preparing patient rooms
- Assisting with in office procedures
- Answering phones
- Scheduling appointments
- Drawing blood samples
Becoming a medical assistant requires only a high school diploma or GED. However, most employers prefer that their medical assistants earn their certification before beginning work.
This can be done through a college or a certificate program. Most medical assistant programs take anywhere from 4 months to 2 years to complete, and can be done online or in person.
Medical assistants usually work in healthcare clinics or doctors offices. They can also specialize and work in clinics like pediatrics, cardiology, or podiatry.
Medical assistants usually work regular business hours, although some urgent care clinics may require nights, weekends, and holiday schedules.
Medical assistants often spend most of the day on their feet, interacting directly with patients and physicians. They work in a fast paced environment and can have very rewarding careers.
Medical Coding & Billing Overview
A medical coding and billing specialist will spend most of their day working at a computer. They have to have a good knowledge of billing codes and know how to speak with insurance companies.
Medical billing and coding specialist responsibilities include:
- Coding different procedures
- Reviewing medical records for accuracy
- Reviewing bills from other hospitals to determine whether they were done correctly
- Recording charges for services provided by physicians, chiropractors, dentists, and physical therapists
- Sending medical records and invoices to patients and insurance companies
- Processing claims for payment from insurance companies.
Most medical records specialists work only during normal business hours. They work for healthcare offices and facilities including doctors offices, dentists offices, physical therapists, and anyone else who can be reimbursed by insurance companies.
Medical coders spend long hours sitting and working at a computer. They have to pay close attention to detail since many procedures are similar to each other but must be billed differently. They always need to be on the lookout for errors and sometimes have to report fraudulent or unfair payments.
What are Similarities Between Medical Assisting & Medical Coding/Billing?
While they are not the same, medical assistants and medical coders do share some similarities:
- Healthcare knowledge. Both medical assistants and medical coders have to have a good understanding of basic medical care. They must both understand the steps to basic procedures and know the names of common tests and procedures performed in their facility.
- Diligence. Anyone working in healthcare needs to pay attention to details and be diligent in their work. Missing information or writing something down incorrectly can have a big impact on the lives of patients seeking care in the clinic or office.
- Administrative duties. While they are not identical, both types of healthcare professionals might spend a lot of time working at a computer and talking on the phone. This is especially true for medical administrative assistants who do not perform as many clinical tasks.
- Patient advocates. Both of these careers require a commitment to patient care. Patients depend on medical assistants and medical billing specialists to be honest and to always do what is best for them.
What are Key Differences Between Medical Assisting & Medical Coding/Billing?
While they both work in healthcare, the daily responsibilities of a medical assistant and a medical records specialist are different:
- Pay. Medical coders (average of $46,660) make about $10,000 per year more than medical assistants (average of $37,190).
- Training. Medical assistants can get started with only a high school diploma or GED. Medical coders, on the other hand, must have at least a certificate. Most employers require that their medical coders have an associate degree.
- Daily tasks. While both jobs may require time on the computer and telephones, medical assistants usually do a lot more manual labor then medical coders.
Salary Differences for Medical Assistants & Medical Coding/Billing
Both medical assistants and medical records specialists can earn a decent salary. Medical assistants earn an average of $37,190 per year, or $17.88 per hour. Medical records specialists earn about $46,660 per year, or $22.43 per hour.
The most highly paid medical assistants can earn up to $65,000 per year. The most highly paid medical coder can earn over $100,000 per year with an advanced degree.
Job Outlook for Medical Assistants & Medical Coding/Billing
Most healthcare professions have a good job outlook these days. Medical assistants have a projected job growth rate of 16% through 2030, while medical coding and billing specialists can expect to see a growth of 7%.
Medical assistants who would like to progress in their careers often return to school to become nurses and physicians assistants. Those who do not want to continue their education can become office managers or medical assistants instructors.
Medical coders can advance from coding in small offices to auditing large hospitals or becoming coding managers or directors.
Necessary Skills for Medical Assistants & Medical Coding/Billing
When choosing between becoming a medical assistant and a medical coding and billing specialist, you should look at your strengths and weaknesses and consider which one fits your personality best.
Skills required for medical assistants include:
- Endurance for long days on your feet.
- Good manual dexterity
- Great customer service skills
- Comfortable with body fluids
- Organization skills
Medical assistants deal directly with patients and care for them with compassion. Since medical coders deal with the money side of things, they sometimes have to use a little fire to advocate for what is fair for their patients and providers.
Skills required for medical coding and billing specialists include:
- Attention to detail
- Fantastic computer skills
- Analytical skills
- Good memory for different codes
How Can I Choose Between Medical Assisting & Medical Coding/Billing?
If you are choosing between a medical assistant or a medical coding career, there are a few things you should keep in mind:
- Type of work you enjoy. For some people, sitting at a computer to work sounds much more appealing than running around from room to room all day. Some people might find medical coding boring while others find body fluids hard to handle. Consider what types of tasks you really enjoy doing, and choose the career that will allow you to do the most of that.
- Future goals. Both jobs can make good lifelong career choices. When you choose between medical assisting and medical coding, think about which one will lead to the future of your dreams. Medical assisting is a good start for other direct patient care jobs, and medical coding is a good start for people who enjoy more data-driven careers.
- Education requirements. If you need to start working right after completing high school or your GED, medical assisting is a great option as there are few education requirements. There are slightly stricter education requirements for medical coding and billing specialists as it’s not required to be certified or have a degree.
- Salary. While there is not a huge difference between starting pay for the two jobs, keep in mind that medical coding and billing specialists earn about $10,000 more per year than medical assistants.
What are the Education & Certification Requirements for Medical Assistants & Medical Coding/Billing
Medical assistants must have at least a GED or high school diploma before they can start working. Most employers prefer that medical assistants become certified. This can be done through either an associate degree program at a college or a certificate program, and can be finished in as little as 4 months.
Stepful, for example, has a 4-month online medical assistant program that leads to a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant certification.
To become a medical billing and coding specialist, you must complete a certification before you can get a job. There are several options for certification as a medical coder, depending on the specific job you want. Many employers prefer that their medical coders have an associate degree.
Comparing a Day in the Life for Medical Assistants & Medical Coding/Billing Specialists
A day in the life of a medical billing and coding specialist and a day in the life of a medical assistant have some similarities and some differences. Their work schedules are often very similar, with work scheduled during regular business hours and very few weekend or holiday requirements.
While both can work in doctors offices and clinics, medical billing and coding specialists can work anywhere that accepts health insurance. This can include dentists offices and physical therapy offices.
Medical assistants will spend their days getting patients ready for appointments and keeping their office or clinic running smoothly. They might rush around from being on the phone to taking vital signs to cleaning rooms.
Medical billing and coding specialists will usually have their own desk where they spend most of their day. While they have a specified amount of work to complete, they have a little more autonomy about when to perform certain tasks.
Job Growth & Progression for Medical Assistants & Medical Coding/Billing Specialists
Medical assistants usually progress to other hands-on patient care type jobs. Many medical assistants progress to become registered nurses, advanced practice nurses, or physicians assistants. Medical assisting provides a great base of learning and experience for these types of direct patient care jobs.
Medical billing and coding specialists usually remain in the medical coding and billing field, but can progress to more advanced areas. They may progress to a medical coding director or compliance officer for a large hospital.
Other Healthcare Career Comparisons
Here are some other career comparisons we've written that may help you decide which is best for you:
- Medical Assistant vs. Nurse
- Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Licensed Practical Nurse
- Medical Assistant vs. Phlebotomist
- Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant
- Medical Assisting vs. Medical Administrative Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Patient Care Technician
- Medical Assistant vs. Medical Lab Technician
- Medical Assistant vs. EMT
- Medical Assistant vs. Certified Medical Assistant vs. Registered Medical Assistant
- Alternatives to a Medical Assistant Career
- Healthcare Jobs That Don't Require a College Degree