Health Information Management

AAPC Coder of the Year urges coders to help each other and make learning a priority

JustCoding News: Inpatient, June 23, 2010

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After getting her first taste of life as a coding professional more than 30 years ago while working part-time at the front desk of a psychiatric practice, Nancy G. Higgins, CPC, CPC-I, CIRCC, CPMA, CEMC, has come full circle. She beams with pride when she recounts the day one particular voice mail left her feeling surprised and nervous.

“Oh my gosh, why is Reed Pew calling me?” she wondered at the time. She explained that although she knew her local American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) chapter had nominated her for the Coder of the Year award months earlier, she hadn’t really thought about it since that time. But receiving the voice mail from the AAPC CEO immediately jogged her memory.

“Just being nominated made me cry; it touched me so much that they thought so much of me,” says Higgins, who learned of the nomination back in December at the Charlotte AAPC chapter meeting when she passed the torch as chapter president on to the new leadership. “When Reed Pew told me I had won the award, I was just jumping up and down at my desk—I was so excited and thrilled. I immediately ran over to the desk of the lady next to me and started jumping up and down with her. Then she said, ‘Why are we so happy?’ ”

Higgins is quick to point out, though, that she really feels like the award belongs to all of the members of her local Charlotte AAPC chapter, who she says have all helped her throughout her career.

For example, in 2009 she donated her time to teach seven review classes for the CPC exam. “Yes, I taught the review classes, but someone went with me and signed people in and collected money.” And last year Higgins earned her CPMA and CIRCC certifications.

“But look at how many people helped me learn about these topics,” she says. “I would never have gotten [these certifications] without the help of others.”

In addition to her job as a senior compliance specialist II with Charlotte, NC–based Carolinas Healthcare Systems, Higgins says that the fact that her three daughters are older now allows her to dedicate time to her profession and help other coders.

And it’s this dedication to her profession and her fellow coders that she thinks contributed to her winning the 2009 AAPC Coder of the Year award.

“I see so many people who maybe haven’t had the opportunities I’ve had in life, and they’re trying so hard to learn,” Higgins says. “I just feel like it’s so important to help those people and help them learn, answer their questions, and be supportive to them.”

Front desk job launched her career

Like many coders, Higgins learned the basics of how practices run by starting on the front lines—literally working the front desk.

She began her career handling basic front office tasks such as checking people in and out and performing transcription. But then when the biller left the practice and this positioned opened up, she seized the opportunity to learn more. So then she started filling out claim forms and tracking payments using a peg board system.

After continuing work at the practice, her career took a slight detour when she went back to school to study accounting, which led to her becoming a certified public accountant (CPA). The firm she worked for had a consulting division for medical practices, and Higgins eventually worked her way up to become the head of that division.

But after a stint at another CPA firm, she decided to let her CPA certification go so she could focus on coding and other consulting opportunities. After running her own consulting firm for a number of years, Higgins decided that she needed to make a career move that would allow her to travel less and be home more for her youngest daughter. This led to her current job with Carolinas Healthcare Systems as a compliance specialist.

In addition to her chart audit work for many cardiologists and oncologists as well as other specialists, Higgins is very involved in teaching a two-hour coding and documentation session each week for new physicians who are joining the health system.

“I do a lot of training with doctors to improve their coding and documentation,” says Higgins, who focuses on teaching evaluation and management coding, incident-to requirements, as well as rules that govern coding for teaching physicians. “When you explain the requirements, many physicians have told me, ‘I do that, but I don’t always put it in my note.’ So I find a lot of the time that physicians do a lot more than what they document.”

Aside from the coding challenges related to physician documentation, Higgins feels that one of the biggest tasks coders face is staying up to date with the constant change in Medicare regulations as well as payer requirements.

The desire to learn helps her tackle challenges

Higgins’ passion to always learn more and to seek out the latest updates is another attribute that she says helped her earn the AAPC award. And she encourages others to be dedicated to the profession and remember that it’s all about learning.

“The more you learn, the better off you are, and the more valuable you are to the community,” she says. “Beyond that, it’s all about us helping each other. We can be the best of the best, but if we’re not helping others it’s not nearly worth what it would be otherwise.”

And she recognizes that coders today are under tremendous pressure to do more and more work but with less help and less staffing.

“The demands placed on us are a little higher than what they used to be, but that’s a tremendous opportunity for us to prove our value to the medical community,” Higgins says.

Taking this enthusiasm a step further, she also admits to being especially excited about ICD-10.

“I just think it’s going to be so much fun learning a whole new coding system. I just think it will be great, and the doctors will need us so much to help explain the new system to them and teach them, which is one of my favorite things to do,” she says.

With goals in mind, the future is bright

Looking ahead, this theme of education and learning will continue for Higgins, who says that although her string of credentials has grown over the years, she’s already scanning the list of certifications to see what else sparks her interest.

“I want to continue to learn as much as I can because that’s so important to me,” says Higgins, who is working on compiling all her instructional handouts over the years into a book.

And although she has been the president of the Charlotte AAPC chapter twice already, Higgins is hoping to hold that role one more time in her career so she can lead her team to winning AAPC chapter of the year.

“Certainly, winning coder of the year is the number one thing I’ve achieved professionally—I don’t know that I’ll ever top that,” she says, adding that aside from this tremendous dedication to her work, her number one priority in life is her family. “A lot of what I do, I do to set an example for them.”

Editor’s note: E-mail your questions to Managing Editor Doreen V. Bentley, CPC-A, at

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