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Navigating the Nuances of Consult Coding



Hospitalists often have questions related to coding for consultative services and subsequent hospital visits, especially when other specialists are managing the patient “concurrently.” If the hospitalist is practicing in a teaching hospital the guidelines can be yet more confusing, due to the need to apply Medicare’s teaching physician guidelines. Even after reading informative articles or attending educational sessions, hospitalists may encounter unique scenarios that can frustrate the most experienced physician and/or coder. The goal of this article is to present some basic principles regarding coding for consultations and concurrent care, and to provide several case scenarios that can be applied in clinical practice as a guide.

Objectives of the article include answering the following questions:

  • Is it appropriate as a hospitalist to bill a consultation code when requested by a surgeon who really wants you to manage the patient’s chronic medical conditions?
  • Can a hospitalist charge for services provided to a postoperative patient at the request of the surgeon, even though there are no real medical conditions or complications?
  • Can two internists (different subspecialties) treat and bill the same patient on the same day and get paid?
  • Can two internists (same specialty) treat and bill the same patient on the same day?
  • What if my group performs preoperative evaluations and will also be managing the patient postoperatively for his/her medical conditions? When the surgeon requests a “consult” may I use the consultation codes?


An inpatient consultation is a service provided by a physician whose opinion or advice regarding evaluation and/or management of a specific problem(s) is requested by another physician. There has been a tremendous amount of confusion in interpreting the rules regarding consultations in general, and this is particularly true for hospitalists given frequent blurring of the distinction between classic consultation and co-management. In August of 1999, Medicare clarified for its carriers when an encounter qualified as a consultation. Here’s what the manual states:

Consultation followed by treatment: “…Payment for a consultation may be made regardless of treatment initiation UNLESS A TRANSFER OF CARE OCCURS. A transfer of care occurs when the referring physician transfers the responsibility for the patient’s complete care to the receiving physician at the time of referral and the receiving physician documents approval of the transfer of care in advance. “ (reference MCM 15506 B.)

Inpatient consultant services are coded using initial consult codes (99251-99255).


A physician (or non-physician provider) must request the opinion or advice of the physician regarding evaluation and/or management of a specific problem(s)

The request (written, oral) and the reason for the consultation must be documented in the patient’s evaluation, opinion and recommendations must be documented

The consultant’s opinion must be communicated to the requesting physician and be documented in the medical record

Scenario # 1

A psychiatrist asks you to see a 36-year-old man for “uncontrolled hypertension” who was admitted with a manic episode. The patient stopped taking his anti-hypertensive medications 6 weeks before, and his systolic blood pressure has been consistently running 160–170 since admission. You perform an in-depth review of his medical records, along with a thorough history and physical examination (made challenging by his poorly controlled mania) and review of his laboratory studies. After your evaluation, you agree to manage the patient’s hypertension problem.

Question # 1: Should this be coded as a consultation or a subsequent visit?

Answer: Since a request was made to evaluate a patient for a problem and you did not in advance of the consultation (in writing) accept transfer of the patient’s medical care, a consultation may be coded as long as all of the criteria have been met. The fact that you decide to manage the patient’s hypertension subsequent to the initial consult does not impact your ability to use the initial consult code for this patient. Remember the requirements for a consultation—

  • Request for consult. (A written order by the psychiatrist should be documented in the record and the consulting physician should document “Consult requested by Dr. Smith for evaluation of patient’s uncontrolled hypertension.”)
  • Written report of his or her findings in the inpatient medical record. (The note may serve as a “report” and should clearly define the recommendations made by you, the consultant.)

Question # 2: Can the degree of complexity be considered higher than a typical patient with “uncontrolled hypertension” due to the difficulties in obtaining the information for this patient?

Answer: The complexity of data reviewed can have an impact on the level of service billed. The uncontrolled nature of the underlying problem, and the summarizing of the patient’s history from the record when the patient is unable to provide the information would be indicative of moderate complexity decision-making. Note that in situations where the level of service is much lower than the time spent with the patient due to extenuating circumstances such as these, it may be appropriate to consider “prolonged care” codes as long as the time thresholds are met and time is documented in the record.

Scenario # 2

A patient with stable hypertension and diabetes has been seen by one of the other members of your group and specialty for a preoperative consultation. The consultation was performed and the patient was deemed to be medically optimized. After the surgery, you are asked to co-manage the patient’s SAME medical conditions.

Question: Can I code an initial consult?

Answer: This is a situation where Medicare has a special rule for those physicians (same specialty and in the same group practice) who perform pre-operative consultations. A consult code (either initial or follow up) should not be used but rather a subsequent visit code should be used. An assumption is made that the physician who performed the preoperative consult will have developed a treatment plan for that problem and will have assumed responsibility for any postoperative care requested by the surgeon. HOWEVER, if a new problem has arisen and a consult is requested by the physician postoperatively, then an initial consult code may be used.

Postoperative Management of Medical Problems

According to Medicare’s carrier manual, “If a surgeon asks a physician to take responsibility for the management of an aspect of the patient’s condition during the postoperative period, the physician may not bill a consultation because the surgeon is not asking the physician’s opinion or advice for the surgeon’s use in treating the patient. The physician’s services would constitute concurrent care and should be billed using the appropriate level subsequent visit codes.” (MCM 15506 G) This often is reflected by an order from the surgeon that says “notify Dr. X of patient’s transfer to RNF” or perhaps a telephone call to place a patient on the hospitalist’s schedule. So what is “concurrent care”?


Follow up consultation codes (99261-99263) are NOT used for visits once you are “managing” the patient’s problem(s). These are only used when completing an “unfinished” initial consult (i.e., following up pending test results before making final recommendations) or when asked a second time for an opinion after deciding NOT to manage the patient’s problem(s).

Concurrent Care

Concurrent care exists where services “more extensive than consultative services are rendered by more than one physician during a period of time” (MCM 2020E). Basically this means that more than one physician has primary responsibility for managing a portion of the patient’s care (concurrently) during the patient’s inpatient stay. For Medicare and other payers, this is considered appropriate when these “concurrent” services are “reasonable and necessary.”

  • The condition(s) or diagnoses warrant the service and the specialty or expertise of the other physician(s) and at a reasonable frequency or duration.
  • Duplicate services (i.e., services provided by two different providers of the same specialty for the same or similar conditions) will typically not be considered necessary unless a special circumstance is noted. For many payers, the internist and subspecialist who co-manage the same problem may have services performed on the same day denied, and documentation would need to show there were “special circumstances.” However, if the hospitalist is treating additional issues, then there should be no problem with separate payment. Medicare does recognize the endocrinology and internal medicine specialties separately and would probably pay both even if for the same condition. But if both are really “co-managing” the same problem without any additional issues daily, most payers are going to question this, either at the time of billing or retrospectively through audits.

Inpatient Concurrent care then is coded with subsequent hospital codes in the hospital setting (Codes 99231 through 99233).

Scenario # 3

A 73-year-old man with a past medical history notable for chronic renal insufficiency, hypertension, and Alzheimer’s type dementia undergoes a right open nephrectomy for renal cell carcinoma. His early postoperative course is marked by hypotension in the post-anesthesia care unit, and he is admitted to the SICU. His course there is significant for worsening of his baseline creatinine of 1.9 to 3.8, the development of delirium, and labile blood pressure. He is transferred from the SICU to a regular nursing floor on postoperative day 2, and the attending urologist requests that you assume management of the patient’s hypertension, delirium, and acute renal failure.

Question: Does this meet the definition of appropriate concurrent care or a consultation?

Answer: Although this constitutes something of a gray area, the request as worded indicates that the hospitalist will be providing concurrent care, and the initial visit should thus be billed as a Level 3 subsequent visit (99233). If the hospitalist’s role is, rather, to provide recommendations regarding management of these problems, the initial visit should be billed as an initial inpatient consult at the appropriate level.

Scenario # 4

A 66-year-old woman with a history of coronary artery disease 3 years after stenting of the left anterior descending coronary artery, moderate aortic stenosis, well-controlled diabetes mellitus, and hyperlipidemia undergoes a left modified radical mastectomy. On the morning of her first postoperative day, she experiences substernal chest pain, with T wave inversions in the inferior leads of her ECG. Her breast surgeon consults cardiology for her chest pain, endocrinology for “diabetic control,” and the hospitalist to “oversee the medical issues.”

Question: Can the hospitalist successfully bill in this setting? If so, what needs to be done to allow this?

Answer: Because of the various specialists who are treating this patient’s medical conditions, it will be difficult to demonstrate to a payer that an additional physician should be managing the patient’s care on a daily basis for the same medical problems. Such billing would probably be considered “duplicate care” and one of the physicians’ charges will be appropriately denied. However, if the specialists have been consulted only and have not assumed management for these medical conditions, then the hospitalist who has assumed management may bill for these services. As with scenario #3, the surgeon’s request as worded in this scenario indicates the hospitalist is providing concurrent care and a consultation is not being requested.

Scenario #5:

The hospital medicine consult team is asked to see a 31-year-old woman who is postoperative day 3 after a total proctocolectomy for refractory ulcerative colitis. Her past medical history is remarkable for iron-deficiency anemia, steroid-induced diabetes, and depression. You are asked to evaluate the patient for shortness of breath that began that day. The PGY-3 resident working with you evaluates the patient initially, reviews all available records from this admission as well as the past, performs an exhaustive history and physical, personally reviews the ECG and chest X-ray that have just been completed, and documents all of the above. You then discuss the case with the resident, and personally confirm critical portions of the history and examination. You agree with the resident’s assessment that the patient has most likely sustained a pulmonary embolism, as well as her recommendation for empiric anticoagulation and an urgent V/Q scan.

Question #1: What must be done documentation-wise by the attending physician to ensure that the optimum billing level is captured for this patient? What is not acceptable in this setting?

Answer: Redocumentation by the teaching physician is relatively minimal since CMS revised its guidelines [Transmittal 1780 dated 11/22/02], which allows substantial reference to the resident’s note in addition to a personal note, however, documentation must clearly demonstrate that the teaching physician was physically present during the key portions of the service billed. Examples of documentation provided by CMS are:

“I performed a history and examination of the patient and discussed his management with the resident. I reviewed the resident’s note and agree with the documented findings and plan of care.”


“I saw and evaluated the patient. I agree with the findings and plan of care documented in the resident’s note.”


“I saw and evaluated the patient. I agree w/ the resident’s note except…” while noting the difference in plan, etc.

Question #2: If the hospitalist/medical resident write the orders for the heparin and V/Q scan, does this constitute comanagement and prevent billing this as a consult?

Answer: A consultant may initiate treatment at the conclusion of his evaluation and still bill a consultation code as long as the other requirements have been met (i.e., a request for opinion regarding evaluation and treatment and no advance transfer of care). There are no specific rules related to medical residents in this scenario, so if the teaching physician is performing the consult in a timely manner with the resident, a consultation could still be coded appropriately.


Although efforts have been made by Medicare to clarify the vagaries of coding for consultative work, existing guidelines remain complex and not necessarily intuitive. This article has attempted to shed light on some of the more commonly encountered situations with which hospitalists grapple, but is unable to address all of the questions that may arise. Hospitalists and hospital medicine groups are encouraged to familiarize themselves with current coding guidelines and to establish and maintain strong relationships with local coding professionals. Future issues of The Hospitalist will tackle additional coding questions.

Dr. Pfeiffer can be contacted at [email protected].

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