7 Steps of Becoming a Successful Remote Coder
By Doug Montgomery, VP HIM Services at MedPartners HIM October, 2012
Recently, MedPartnersHIM HIM conducted a field study of 60 remote coders in the industry. All of the coders have more than 5 years’ experience working for various acute care facilities and come from various backgrounds and skill sets. It didn’t matter if they were inpatient, outpatient, or emergency room coders; all of them faced some level of apprehension when moving into a remote role.
Sure, some coders always wanted to work from home and were confident in their abilities to work solo. Others are more concerned about the unknown and reluctant to make the transition. In this article and survey we address some the concerns coders have and offer a guide to reduce the stress of a difficult decision (a current employer may force this upon a coder anyway!).
First, we asked the coders surveyed what is their favorite part of working work from home. Our responses were predictable with over 40% of them saying that they “liked the convenience of working from home.” The second most selected answer was they liked the “flexibly of working their own schedule.” 25% of those surveyed selected that they “enjoyed working in the peace and quiet of their own home.” So, we can conclude that working from home provides the following benefits to coders; convenience, flexibility, and solitude.
Second, we asked specifically if the coders have a set schedule they prefer to work or stagger their schedule. Most of the coders responded that they have a set schedule (63%) vs. staggering their hours (36%). Coders will find that clients prefer that coders stick to a specific schedule so everyone is aware of what to expect from them. Usually facilities are looking for the days in the week coders work rather than what specific hours of the day. Therefore, the nice part of working remotely is you typically can choose when you want to start working and stop working. If you’re an early riser and like to start your day at 5AM and end your day at 1PM, you may have that option.
Challenges facing remote coders can be far different, and often more frustrating than working in the hospital. Many remote coders can have challenges such as not having access to specific documents needed to code or having the ability to ask a coworker questions about a specific procedure code. Additionally, working remotely can create loneliness and loss of the social network many enjoy at the hospital. Some coders even miss taking a breather to walk down to the café for a coffee or snack break. We also heard that some coders feel as though they are on an “island by themselves”.
According to those surveyed 52% of remote coders miss the ability to bounce coding questions off a coworker while 41% of coders miss the social setting. Lastly, 18% surveyed found that IT challenges can be frustrating and make them turn blue in the face!
The biggest challenge those surveyed had to overcome:
Most coders (28%) were worried about staying focused/ disciplined/motivated. Others were worried about not being able to connect to the hospitals VPN (18%). Missing the social setting of working the hospital and worry about being solo with no support network both came in at 13%. Meeting productivity standards and concern about length of contract came in at 8%.
Other answers varied from being worried about over eating and lacking exercise (very good concern), while several coders said “I had no concerns at all.” You’ve got to love the confidence! You go!
Lastly, under the “challenges category” we asked what are the biggest disruptions that effect productivity? Again, we left the question open ended and allowed them to answer freely rather than a multiple choice answer. The item that came up the most (27%) was IT Issues. The second biggest concern was disruptive personal phone calls (23%). Next was concern of people stopping over for visits (13%) (ya think). Lastly, 10% of coders experienced disruption by chores and the kids (darn kids again). Other distractions that were mentioned were; emails, researching codes or procedures, not having enough charts in the queue to code, lack of documentation in charts, opening queues only to find another coder has been working pulling charts out, and family and friends calling asking for favors.
7 Steps of Becoming a Successful Remote Coder!
Step 1: Attitude is Everything!
These are the “good” and the “bad” aspects of remote coding (don’t all jobs have “good” and “bad” aspects?). We asked this group of remote coders what are 3 words to best describe a remote coders’ character. The top three words mentioned the most are disciplined, motivated, and focused. Once an individual figures out the formula of a positive attitude they will start to look forward to their day. Every individual is different so no one recommendation will work for everyone. Dig deep and you will find the answers…you can do it! The words below were mentioned the most:
Self Motivated/Directed 41%
Below are additional words that those surveyed described as being a successful remote coder:
• Good Communicator
• Quick Learner
• Technically minded
• Goal Driven
Step 2: Creating a Zen-Like Work Setting
When considering working at home you must decide where you will spend your time working. So, we asked these professionals to describe what their home office entails. Below are the most common responses that we would like to share with you.
The “Ideal Home Office” would have:
An office with a locking door, a large desk w/ locking drawers, dual monitors, comfortable chair with good back support, high speed internet (super-fast!), lots of natural lighting, printer/fax machine, heavy duty shredder, coding books and reference guides, phone w/ speaker and headset, snacks, small refrigerator, a cat or fish (not both or it would drive the cat nuts), no small children, no grandparents, a room with a window (no spacing out!) and plants, create a relaxing environment, a bulletin board w/ calendar, and soothing music! Now you are ready to code from home!
We would agree that having most of the items listed above would be a good start for coders looking to work remotely.
Step 3: Social Networking: Get a Life Line
One of the “challenges” listed by the coders was that they would miss having a coworker near them to bounce a question off of them. That challenge is easily resolved by having a friend/coworker to call (others called it their “Phone a Friend” option). In our survey we asked the question “who has Phone a Friend support?” 80% of them said they have a “Go To” person when they need validation or a question on a specific chart. If you are considering working remotely it would be a great idea to have a friend/coworker you trust to bounce tough questions off of. It is always a best practice in any job to get validation to a question rather than give your best educated guess.
Step 4: How to Cope With Working Alone
Working for home can be lonely and become boring. When you are lonely or bored you may find yourself doing things other than working: cleaning, getting a head start on laundry before the weekend, surfing the web, or cutting the lawn etc. Don’t let this happen to you! Be strong, disciplined, and stay focused on your work. It’s ok (and highly recommended) to take breaks every couple hours for about 15 minutes and take a 30-60 minute lunch break. During your breaks do something that relaxes you that will help you reduce stress. Some good stress relievers are exercises and stretches, close your eyes and listen to soothing music, sitting in the sunshine with your favorite (non-alcoholic) drink, or call a friend and socialize a little. While working from home has its perks, you have to find ways to minimize boredom and loneliness so you can stay focused on your work. Your employer is counting on your support!
Step 5: Minimize your disruptions (Honey, you can’t call me right now, I’m WORKING!)
Three of the biggest disruptions mentioned in our survey that can be controlled were 1) family and friends calling, 2) friends knocking on the door, and 3) doing chores or taking care of the kids (43% combined). The first step when you start working remotely is to inform your family and friends that you can’t be interrupted (unless you’re bleeding to death!). Also, you should say NO to neighbors asking if you can babysit the plumber or A/C guy because your neighbor can’t be home. Coders need to put their foot down and set the expectation with everyone that, yes, even though they are home physically, they are mentally working on a very important patient’s chart. We know, it easier to say than to follow. You need to keep telling yourself to stay focused and remind yourself why you are lucky enough to work from home.
Step 6: Advice from the professionals!
Lastly we asks all those surveyed what advice they would give a coder interested in working from home. Here are a few of their suggestions:
– “Be very sure that this is the environment you want to work in, set rules and boundaries for your family/friends. Make a schedule that is realistic and stick to it. Get the contact info for your support personnel at the facility that you will be reporting to so your problems can be resolved in a timely manner. MANAGE YOUR TIME. A higher productivity is expected due to the fact that you no longer have office disruptions.”
– “Make sure you have an organized work space. Treat your office like you would if you were at a facility work site – devote it to work and have the tools you need available. You cannot do this on the couch with a laptop in your lap. The only real way to keep remote work from taking over your personal life is to keep it in a separate room. Then when you are off you are off. If you do work all over the house, then the lines become blurred and you mentally feel like you are always working.”
– “Stay focused. If you find yourself losing it, don’t be afraid to take a break. It truly does help. Find something that helps break the monotony such as music if you can or even chewing gum. Make yourself comfy. At work you get to get up and get printed coding sheets, go for a cup of coffee with a friend, etc. You deserve breaks at home as well. Get up once and a while and walk around. Helps my productivity to do that. Sit outside for a bit, email questions, stay in touch with the staff. Staying connected is another important part of remote coding. Sometimes you are the one to “have” to make the effort because you are not always remembered but that’s OK as long as you know that going into it. Have your desk next to a window if possible. Makes you feel less alone if you can watch the birds or people doing their everyday activities. Just some things that help me”.
-“ Be patient and remember that you are WORKING from home, don’t let distractions affect your work. Stay focused and have a set schedule, that helps and makes you feel like you are ‘going’ to work.”
-“ Be patient! it’s the best feeling in the world!!!”
-“Stay focused & disciplined. If you are not a disciplined person remote coding will be hard to do. I extremely love remote coding & would recommend it to anyone!”
-“ Be very, very sure you can handle being alone without coworkers, gossip etc. If you need social interaction, this may not be for you.”
-“As a Team Leader the best advice I can give a new coder is: Ask questions if you have them, do the best you possibly can. Take pride in your work and never second-guess yourself. We work as a team!”
Step 7(and one of the most important steps): Get a line to IT Help!
The transition from working at the hospital to working from home can create a lot of apprehension and stress. One area that consultant coders or hospital employed coders need to consider is IT Support. Coders need a plan for multiple situations that can arise and have contact numbers in place to reduce the downtime of searching for these contacts. First, have a main contact email and phone number for the hospital’s IT Help Desk. Consultants should always ask prior to starting a job what the IT Help Desk number is and/or specifically whom they should call if they are having challenges.
Secondly, make sure you have the right number to call for speed issues with your home internet provider. Sometimes it can be very time consuming and frustrating calling into the cable/phone company to get directed to the right department. Having the right number up front will eliminate the time and potential frustrations!
Lastly, find out who can service your computer quickly in case it crashes! (NOTE: Not a friend or neighbor) Where will you take it to be repaired? Do you have a company that can come to your house for service? Do you have a backup computer you can use while your main computer is being fixed? Again, being prepared for these issues is a must. Yes, they happen to everyone and being prepared makes your life as a remote coder much easier!