Project Xtern Offers the Golden Ticket

Vol. 17 •Issue 15 • Page 18
Project Xtern Offers the Golden Ticket

To help both the student and hiring facility, AAPC created Project Xtern, a program designed to match beginning coders with facilities willing to give them field experience.

One coding course and Linda Pascal was hooked—she was determined to get a job in coding and was taking all the right steps to get there.

Graduate from an accredited coding program—check. Pass the certified coding specialist (CCS) exam—check. She was even spending money on continuing education units (CEUs) while job searching to keep her credential of certified professional coder—apprentice (CPC-A).

But 4 years later, Pascal still found herself working as a medical biller in a large hospital in Boston, unable to land even an externship, let alone a job, in coding.

“I was calling, e-mailing everybody in my hospital and nobody would take me in,” Pascal recalled. “They want you to have the experience.”

Pascal was stuck in the familiar Catch 22 of coding.

To move from apprentice to certified professional coder (CPC), the AAPC requires 2 years of coding work experience. However, like most coders, Pascal found it nearly impossible to get hired without experience.

Enter Project Xtern, a program created in January by the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) to help students break into the industry by matching beginning coders with facilities willing to provide the field experience.

“Many of these people have gone to a career college, paid anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000 for college courses and have passed the test, so they’ve demonstrated they know their stuff, but they’re still working at Home Depot,” said Stephanie Jones, vice president of member services at AAPC. “Project Xtern gives the extern a chance to say, “Hey, I do know my stuff!”

Project Xtern makes it easy to connect students with employers by providing a database on its Web site of facilities offering externships, which AAPC members can search for by state.

Pascal knows how difficult the other route is; after years of cold-calling, e-mailing and searching online without luck, she was amazed to find an externship in her area with Project Xtern in less than a week.

“You just go to the AAPC Web site and it’s right there,” Pascal commented. “They establish all the contacts for you. I didn’t even really do much work. This has been 4 years of wanting to get into coding but couldn’t. Hopefully this is the end of the road for me.”

Xtern Site: Approved

To be added to the Project Xtern database, each facility must first be certified by the AAPC as an Approved Official Extern Site (AOES), which means it has guaranteed to provide its externs with 60 percent direct coding experience.

Because externships are usually unpaid, this is a way for the AAPC to guarantee its members aren’t being used as free labor, Jones noted.

“We understand there is a certain amount of supporting tasks with any job, but the main point we make is that they’ll utilize these externs the majority of the time in a coding capacity so that they can walk away and actively seek employment,” Jones remarked.

What is required of the extern is simply that he/she is an AAPC member in good standing. With membership, the extern is allowed access to the Project Xtern Web site and can browse the database of 101 current AOES sites by state.

This creates a win-win situation for both facilities and externs, Jones stated.

For the externs, knowing all of the sites are AOES-approved gives them the security that their time will be well-spent learning the codes. For the employers, knowing the extern is an AAPC member reassures them they’re getting someone serious about coding, said Cora Schrader, CPC, of Family Care Associates, an AOES site in Wellesley, MA.

“[The extern] being a member of the AAPC is absolutely essential for me,” Schrader said. “It’s sort of a pre-screen in a way. If I’m going to spend my time mentoring, they’re going to be just as passionate and serious about the profession as I am.”

Beyond providing the contact, the AAPC is hands-off, and terms of the externship are left up to the extern and hiring facility to negotiate. Most externships last anywhere from 40-120 hours, and employers are free to accept or not accept the extern for any reason, Jones noted.

“There haven’t been any problems. Most externs are so eager for the opportunity; they’re working their hearts out while they’re there,” Jones enthused.

Pascal is a true example of that. She was so excited for the opportunity to gain field experience in coding, she now squeezes the 40 hours of her regular job into 4 days just to free up a day to learn the codes with Schrader at Family Care Associates.

“I am so excited the AAPC came up with this idea,” Pascal enthused. “Cora is great. It’s hands-on work and she really takes her time; everything I need to know she explains step by step.”

Learning Beyond the Codes

Now that Project Xtern is in place, its need has become even more apparent, noted Danielle Fenochietti, AAPC Project Xtern liaison.

“There has been an overwhelming response. The program has been needed for a really long time now and our members are just eating it up,” Fenochietti said. “Some AOES sites already have a 4-month waiting list.”

The reason for the high demand can be attributed to a change in coder demographic. In the past, most people taking the exam were seasoned coders looking to validate themselves. Now, a majority of them are students new to the industry with no background in coding, explained Nancy Reading, AAPC’s director of educational services.

“This is an up-and-coming profession. I see people being able to move into it without a huge initial investment of resources,” Reading said. “A doctor can no longer employ his wife or the girl next door; they need a well-educated, credentialed coder.”

Not to mention, experience is the golden ticket in the coding world, and for good reason. With issues like compliance, confidentiality and legal ramifications to consider, externs appreciate the opportunity to learn the codes in a non-threatening environment.

“It gives you a little breathing room, being able to relax and learn without the pressure,” said Mary Gibbons, a coder at Hammer & Hack, an AOES site in Louisville, KY, who was hired after her externship there. “I wouldn’t want to go in a place and worry, are they going to get rid of me because I don’t know what I’m doing?”

Donna Manor sought out an externship at Cooper University Hospital, an AOES-approved site in Camden, NJ, because she wanted to be more prepared for the CCS exam. What she gained was not only more knowledge of the codes, but also all of the inside tips she never would have learned in class.

“When we didn’t have any information on our test and nobody was calling us back, I had the whole office I could go to,” Manor said. “The women there gave me tips on what to do, what not to do. Little things, like, ‘That room over there, sometimes it’s hot, so make sure you’re comfortable.’”

For anyone wondering how much more Manor gained through her externship since her last coding class, she has proof.

“I still had my books from school; I took them with me, and every new thing I found I highlighted. My books are loaded! I’ve got so many highlights in there now it’s not even funny,” Manor raved.

Gaining the Confidence

It’s apparent that an externship benefits the students, but what about the facility?

“It’s a definite win-win situation,” Schrader asserted. “It gives us access to fresh ideas, new and different perspectives. For us it’s a learning experience.”

Project Xtern also provides the facility with a free, often energetic set of hands to take on some of the work load. For a facility that may be hiring, this now gives them 4-8 weeks to evaluate whether this person is an exact fit with their practice, Jones said.

“The people who walk through the door are soaking up things like a sponge,” Schrader said. “That is what I like. These externs are so thankful for the opportunity.”

At the very least, the extern will walk away with a new sense of confidence, a good reference and a networking opportunity, Schrader said.

“I have worked all across the country, so I have networking nationwide,” Schrader remarked. “I like to take as active a role as possible to network for these externs of mine. I want them to be able to hit that work force with a sense of confidence and professionalism.”

Confidence, and a secure sense that coding was the right career for her, is exactly what Manor gained through her externship experience.

“I know for sure I want to do this now,” Manor explained. “I liked coding, but it was just the ‘Can I do this?’ question. You know exactly where you stand with your coding when you’re done. If you don’t have the confidence when you come in, you will have it when you get done!”

Ainsley Maloney is an editorial assistant with ADVANCE.