Documentation has always been part of a physician’s job. Historically, in the days of paper records, physicians saw a patient on rounds and immediately following, while still on the unit, wrote a daily note detailing the events, test results, and plans since the last note. Addenda were written over the course of the day and night as needed.
The medical record was a chronological itemization of the encounter. The chart told the patient’s story, hopefully legibly and without excessive rehashing of previous material. The discharge summary then encapsulated the hospitalization in several coherent paragraphs.
In the current electronic records environment, we are inundated with excessive and repetitious information, data without interpretation, differentials without diagnoses. Prepopulation of templated notes, defaults without edit, and dictation without revision have degraded our documentation to the point of unintelligibility. The chronological storytelling and trustworthiness of the medical record has become suspect.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is touting its “Patients over Paperwork” initiative. The solution is flawed (that is, future relaxation of documentation requirements for professional billing) because the premise is delusive. Documentation isn’t fundamentally the problem. Having clinicians jump through regulatory hoops which do not advance patients’ care, and providers misunderstanding the requirements for level-of-service billing are the essential issues. Getting no training on how to properly document in medical school/residency and receiving no formative feedback on documentation throughout one’s career compounds the problem. Having clinical documentation serve too many masters, including compliance, quality, medicolegal, utilization review, and reimbursement, is also to blame. The advent of the electronic medical record was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Many hospitals now have a clinical documentation integrity (CDI) team which is tasked with querying the provider when the health record documentation is conflicting, imprecise, incomplete, illegible, ambiguous, or inconsistent. They are charged with getting practitioners to associate clinical indicators with diagnoses and to consider removal of diagnoses which do not seem clinically valid from the existing documentation. From this explanation, you might well conclude that the CDI specialist could generate a query on every patient if they were so inclined, and you would be correct. But the goal isn’t to torture the physician – it is to ensure that the medical record is accurately depicting the encounter.
You are not being asked for more documentation by the CDI team; they are entreating you for higher-quality documentation. Let me give you some pointers to ward off queries.
- Tell the story. The most important goal of documentation is to clinically communicate to other caregivers. Think to yourself: “What would a fellow clinician need to know about this patient to understand why I drew those conclusions or to pick up where I left off?” At 2 a.m., that information, or lack thereof, could literally be a matter of life or death.
- Tell the truth. Embellishing the record or including invalid diagnoses with the intent to increase the severity of illness resulting in a more favorable diagnosis-related group – the inpatient risk-adjustment system – is considered fraud.
- You may like the convenience of copy forward, but do you relish reading other people’s copy and paste? Consider doing a documentation time-out. Before you copy and paste yesterday’s assessment and plan, stop and think: “Why is the patient still here? Why are we doing what we are doing?” If you choose to copy and paste, be certain to do mindful editing so the documentation represents the current situation and avoids redundancy. Appropriately editing copy and pasted documentation may prove more time consuming than generating a note de novo.
- Translate findings into diagnoses using your best medical judgment. One man’s hypotension may be another health care provider’s shock. Coders are not clinical and are not permitted to make inferences. A potassium of 6.7 may be hyperkalemia or it may be spurious – only a clinician may make that determination using their clinical expertise and experience. The coder is not allowed to read your mind. You must explicitly draw the conclusion that a febrile patient with bacteremia, encephalopathy, hypoxemia, and a blood pressure of 85/60 is in septic shock.
- Uncertain diagnoses (heralded by words such as: likely, possible, probable, suspected, rule out, etc.) which are not ruled out prior to discharge or demise are coded as if they were definitively present, for the inpatient technical side of hospital billing. This is distinctly different than the professional fee where you can only code definitive diagnoses. If you have a strong suspicion (not wild speculation) that a condition is present, best practice is to offer an uncertain diagnosis. Associate signs and symptoms with your most likely diagnosis: “Shortness of breath, pleuritic chest pain, and hypoxemia in the setting of cancer, probable pulmonary embolism.”
- Evolve, resolve, remove, and recap. If an uncertain diagnosis is ruled in, take away the uncertainty. If it is ruled out, don’t have 4 days of copy and pasted: “Possible eosinophilic pneumonia.” You do not have to maintain a resolved diagnosis ad infinitum. It can drop off the diagnosis list but be sure to have it reappear in the discharge summary.
- I know it can be a hASSLe to do excellent documentation, but it is critical for many reasons, most importantly for superlative patient care. More accurate coding and billing is an intended consequence. A: Acuity; S: Severity; S: Specificity (may affect the coding and the risk-adjustment implications. Acute systolic heart failure does not equal heart failure; type 2 diabetes mellitus with diabetic chronic kidney disease, stage 4 does not equal chronic kidney disease); and L: Linkage (of diagnosis with underlying cause or manifestation [e.g., because of, associated with, as a result of, secondary to, or from diabetic nephropathy, hypertensive encephalopathy]).
- If you have the capability to keep a running summary throughout the hospital stay, do so and keep it updated. A few moments of daily careful editing and composing can save time and effort at the back end creating the discharge summary. The follow-up care provider can reconstruct the hospital course and it is your last chance to spin the narrative for the lawyers.
- Read your documentation over. Ensure that it is clear, accurate, concise, and tells the story and the plans for the patient. Make sure that someone reading the note will know what you were thinking.
- Set up a program to self-audit documentation where monthly or quarterly, you and your partners mutually review a certain number of records and give each other feedback. Design an assessment tool which rates the quality of documentation elements which your hospital/network/service line values (clarity, copy and paste, complete and specific diagnoses, etc.). You know who the best documenters are. Why do you think their documentation is superior? How can you emulate them?
Finally, answer CDI queries. The CDI specialist is your ally, not your enemy. They want you to get credit for taking care of sick and complex patients. They are not permitted to lead the provider, so don’t ask them what they want you to write. But, if you don’t understand the query or issue, have a conversation and get it clarified. It is in everyone’s best interest to get this right.
Documentation improves patient care and demonstrates that you provided excellent patient care. Put mentation back into documentation.
Dr. Remer was a practicing emergency physician for 25 years and a physician advisor for 4 years. She is on the board of directors of the American College of Physician Advisors and the advisory board of the Association of Clinical Documentation Improvement Specialists. She currently provides consulting services for provider education on documentation, CDI, and ICD-10 coding. Dr. Remer can be reached at