Exam Guidelines

The extent of the exam should correspond to the nature of the presenting problem, the standard of care, and the physicians’ clinical judgment. Remember, medical necessity issues can arise if the physician performs and submits a claim for a comprehensive service involving a self-limiting problem. The easiest way to demonstrate the medical necessity for evaluation and management (E/M) services is through medical decision-making. It prevents a third party from making accusations that a Level 5 service was reported solely based upon a comprehensive history and examination that was not warranted by the patient’s presenting problem (e.g. the common cold).1

1995 Exam Guidelines

The 1995 guidelines differentiate 10 body areas (head and face; neck; chest, breast, and axillae; abdomen; genitalia, groin, and buttocks; back and spine; right upper extremity; left upper extremity; right lower extremity; and left lower extremity) from 12 organ systems (constitutional; eyes; ears, nose, mouth, and throat; cardiovascular; respiratory, gastrointestinal; genitourinary; musculoskeletal; integumentary; neurological; psychiatric; hematologic, lymphatic, and immunologic).2 Physicians are permitted to perform and comment without mandate, as appropriate, but with a few minor directives:

  • Document relevant negative findings. Commenting that a system or area is “negative” or “normal” is acceptable when referring to unaffected areas or asymptomatic organ systems.
  • Elaborate abnormal findings. Commenting that a system or area is “abnormal” is not sufficient unless additional comments describing the abnormality are documented.

1997 Documentation Guidelines

The 1997 guidelines are formatted as organ systems with corresponding, bulleted items referred to as “elements.”3 Additionally, a few elements have a numeric requirement to be achieved before satisfying the documentation of that particular element. For example, credit for the “vital signs element” (located within the constitutional system) is only awarded after documentation of three individual measurements (e.g. blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate). Failure to document the specified criterion (e.g. two measurements: “blood pressure and heart rate only,” or a single nonspecific comment: “vital signs stable”) leads to failure to assign credit.

Take note that these specified criterion do not resonate within the 1995 guidelines. Numerical requirements also are indicated for the lymphatic system. The physician must examine and document findings associated with two or more lymphatic areas (e.g. “no lymphadenopathy noted in the neck or axillae”).

In the absence of numeric criterion, some elements contain multiple components, which require documentation of at least one component. For example, one listed psychiatric element designates the assessment of the patient’s “mood and affect.” The physician receives credit for a comment regarding the patient’s mood (e.g. “appears depressed”) without identification of a flat (or normal).

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