It’s no secret that documenting and coding one’s work is not the average hospitalist’s favorite thing to do. It’s probably not even in the top 10 or 20. In fact, many consider the whole documentation process a “thorn in the side.”
“When I first started working, I couldn’t believe that I could get audited and fined just because I didn’t add ‘10-point’ or ‘12-point’ to my note of ‘review of systems: negative,’ ” says hospitalist Amaka Nweke, MD, assistant director with Hospitalists Management Group (HMG) at Kenosha Medical Center in Kenosha, Wis. “I had a lot of frustration, because I had to repackage and re-present my notes in a manner that makes sense to Medicare but makes no sense to physicians.”
Like it or not, healthcare providers live in a highly regulated world, says Richard D. Pinson, MD, FACP, CCS, who became a certified coding specialist and formed his own consulting company, Houston-based HCQ Consulting, to help hospitals and physicians achieve diagnostic accuracy for inpatient care. Documentation and coding have become a serious, high-stakes word game, he says. “Perfectly good clinical documentation, especially with some important diagnoses, may not correspond at all to what is required by the strict coding rules that govern code assignments,” he says.
A hospitalist’s documentation is at the heart of accurate coding, whether it’s for the hospital’s DRG reimbursement, quality and performance scores, or for assigning current procedural terminology (CPT) and evaluation and management (E/M) codes for billing for their own professional services. And if hospitalists don’t buy into the coding mindset, they risk decreased reimbursement for their services, monetary losses for the hospital, Medicare audits, compromised quality scores for both the hospital and themselves, and noncompliance.
“If your documentation is not up to par, then the hospital may get fined and lose money, and you can’t prove your worth as a hospitalist,” Dr. Nweke says.
What’s at Stake?
Inadequate documentation results in “undercoding” a patient’s condition and underpayment to your hospital (see Table 1, right). Undercoding also can result in inadequate representation of the severity of a patient’s illness, complexity, and cost of care. If a patient gets worse in the hospital, then that initial lower severity of illness might show up in poor performance scores on outcome measures. If a patient’s severity of illness is miscoded, Medicare might question the medical necessity for inpatient admission and deny payment.
On the other hand, if overcoding occurs because the clinical criteria for a specific diagnosis have not been met, Medicare will take action to recover the overpayment, leveling penalties and sanctions. (For more information on Medicare’s Recovery Audit Contractor program, dubbed “Medicare’s repo men” by Dr. Pinson, see “Take Proactive Approach to Recovery Audit Contractors,” p. 28.)