Why this credential exists
I've been coding now for 22 years and I've seen quite a bit. I helped train the workforce in ICD-10-CM and ICD-10-PCS. I've audited ICD-9, ICD-10, CPT and HCPCS codes. I've read the Federal Register on DRGs and APCs. But the hardest thing I've ever had to learn to code is IR and cardiology. The coding rules are complicated, ever changing, and often inconsistent for different parts of the body. Learning how to code IR and cardiology procedures by just looking at the CPT book is tough enough, but not all the rules are written there. There are other societies that develop suggested guidelines and then there are the payer's rules and interpretations. In a hospital setting, an understanding of IR and cardiology coding also usually requires an understanding of hospital charging and how departments are credited revenue. This credential exists to show that you've mastered these areas of coding. In my mind, this is the most difficult area of coding there is.
I took the CIRCC exam four years ago with about 10 years of experience under my belt. It was a tough exam. As a matter of fact, it was the hardest multiple choice exam I've ever taken and I would put it up there with the Certified Coding Specialist (CCS) test as one of the toughest. If you are thinking you will get the CIRCC and then land a job as an IR coder without any experience, think again. This is the test you take after you've been coding those types of cases for a long time and feel confident in your abilities. AAPC recommends, but does not require, at least two years of coding experience before taking the CIRCC exam.
What's on the test
The CIRCC exam is spotlighted for its focus on IR coding, but it also includes cardiology procedures. The procedures we're talking about are surgical-type procedures done in a radiology suite or cardiac cath lab using radiological (fluoroscopic) guidance. For IR, this can be vascular studies (angiograms) and interventions (e.g., angioplasty, stenting, thrombectomy) or nonvascular procedures (e.g., placement of biliary stents, nephrostomies, and fluoroscopically-guided biopsies). For cardiology, this can be diagnostic cardiac catheterization, angioplasty and stenting, and cardiac electrophysiology studies and arrhythmia ablations. If you don't know what any of that means, I don't recommend taking the test until you learn more!
What it costs
At the time of this writing, the cost to sit for the CIRCC exam is $400. But the cost of taking the CIRCC doesn't end when you register and pass the exam. Like other credentials, you need continuing education units (CEUs) to maintain the certification. But unlike most other AAPC credentials, there are limited vendors from which you can get those CEUs. Before you decide to take the test, look at the CEU requirements and visit the vendor websites (the AAPC has links) to see how much your CEUs will cost you and be very realistic about what you can afford. If your primary job is coding these types of cases, check with your employer to see if they will reimburse you for any of the costs. This is an expensive credential to maintain, but if it's valued by your employer, they may cover the costs.
Read all about it
I could regurgitate the contents of the AAPC's website about the CIRCC exam, but instead of doing that, I will direct you to their website with this simple instruction: Do your homework! There is a plethora of information on the AAPC's website for this exam and it will tell you everything you need to know from the breakdown of the exam questions, approved manuals and materials (yes, you can bring anatomy cards showing selective vascular ordering), certification requirements, history of the exam, and FAQs. If you were going to spend $400 on a new smartphone, you would probably read up on the different models before making a final decision. Why wouldn't you also do this for a credential? Don't take this exam until you've read all the fine print.
Preparing for the exam
Once you decide that you're ready to pull the plug and take the test, it's time to prepare. Even if you've coded these cases for a long time, there is still preparation to be done. Here is my list of recommendations:
- Get the right CPT book. The AAPC's website is very clear that they will only allow you to use the American Medical Association's (AMA) version of CPT. If you have a CPT book from any other publisher, you cannot use it. I recommend the AMA's Professional Edition of CPT for its color coding and pictures. It's more expensive than the standard edition, but I think it's worth the money.
- Mark your CPT book. Don't waste time writing in the things you already know, but I do recommend making cross-reference notes for any codes that have a one-to-one relationship. For example, I wrote all of the C codes for drug-eluting stent placements next to their CPT counterparts so I didn't have to open another book during the test. Sometimes CPT includes instructional notes in the Surgical section directing you to the Radiology component code. And sometimes it doesn't, so I wrote those in too. Especially if you are used to using an encoder, make sure you have your book set up so you can flip to different code sections fast.
- Get the exam prep book. Yes, it costs more money and no, I am not being paid by the AAPC to push their products! The exam prep book will go over what's on the test. It will give you practice questions and show you the type of questions that will be on the exam. The one thing I remember from the exam prep book is it said in several places that none of the questions are meant to be trick questions. That might sound like a no-brainer, but when you really get into IR coding, you'll see why that's an important thing to remember.
- Spend your study time on your weak areas. Don't waste your time studying things you already know. If there is an area that is not your strongest, make notes on those CPT sections and find tricks to help you remember. When I took the test, I was strong in vascular IR and cardiology, but not so much on nonvascular IR, so those sections of my book had the most notes. Remember: you can write notes in your CPT book, you just can't put any loose pieces of paper in them.
- Take a prep class. If you can find a class that will cover part or all of the exam content, enroll now. I am teaching a vascular interventional radiology class in October 2017 in Denver, which covers some of the trickiest IR coding. I would love to see you there and chat about your CIRCC aspirations!
If you've ever considered taking the CIRCC exam, I hope you found this post useful. Want to learn more about IR coding? Stay tuned - more posts to come!