I can't explain that helpless feeling when you've trained so hard - and studied and taken numerous tests and graduated, etc. etc. etc. - and you land that first job and they hand you an operative report. And you freeze. Because it's like Greek. You have no idea what to do. Where are the short coding scenarios you learned in school? What does that first paragraph really say? You know you could find the code if you could just figure out what the heck the darn report says (incidentally, I now consider myself trilingual: English, medical terminology, and coding!). You know you're qualified, but are you really?
So I sometimes forget when I'm working with new students what it was like. Of course, there are still days when I feel like crying because I keep getting myself into uncharted territory. I actually relish researching and "figuring out" things that other people may abandon because they are too foreign or "difficult." But it wasn't always that way. I used to be an overconfident novice coder who, when a chart was placed in front of her, did a lot of tap dancing to make it look like she was competent. The good news is, 15 years later, I feel competent (most of the time anyway!).
The Word Search
I've worked in coding education now for about 8 years. In that time I've been asked to work on a lot of different projects related to coding education. In addition to training coders, I've been asked to evaluate people to see if they would make good coders. And I always start with the word search test. Do you like word searches? If not, you might want to consider a different career. Because coding is one big word search. You have to decipher the medical record (or operative report) and decide which words are important and which ones you can ditch.
Bunionectomies are a Kick
The first time I was given a bunionectomy report to code, I'm pretty sure I cried. After all, the procedure title was something like "Mitchell-Chevron," which meant nothing to me. And I knew enough about coding to know I had to read the report to figure out if it really was a Mitchell-Chevron. And the report was surely about 4 pages - pretty standard for a thorough podiatrist. And when I went to a class to learn how to code bunionectomy procedures, I realized that out of the entire 4 pages, I focused on about 3 sentences. That was it. The rest was coding garbage. In case you're wondering, a Mitchell-Chevron bunionectomy involves removing the medial eminence (AKA bunion) and making an osteotomy (bone cut) into the first metatarsal (the foot bone connected to the big toe). I'm still amazed that it takes 4 pages to describe that.
Deciphering the Operative Report
I am often asked to explain how to decipher an operative report. Well, it depends on the procedure, really. And if you are a new coder and you ever have the opportunity to go to a seminar where they will present case studies, this is the best way to learn. I've taught dozens of classes and nothing drives home my point more than walking through the cases and coding them. But I will give you some basic elements here to get you started. While these rules don't apply to all specialties (e.g., interventional radiology has "special" rules that drive the even the most experienced coders - that would be me - batty!), this should get you started on some of those basic surgical reports.
- Rule 1 - Doctors Lie: Admit it, you watch House and have heard him say on more than one occasion that patients lie. Well, Dr. House, I would like to point out that doctors lie too. They will state the procedure one way in the title and then proceed to describe a completely different procedure in the body of the report. For example, the doctor may state a left heart catheterization was done, but after reviewing the report, the catheter never made it all the way to the heart - only to the coronary arteries. So keeping this in mind, you should never believe what you read in the procedure title. Honestly, I rarely even read the procedure title anymore - it's often fiction. As for Dr. House, I would love to see a strong-willed coder have it out with him on the show about his documentation, which I'm sure is a mess.
- Rule 2 - Get a Medical Dictionary: There's no excuse anymore. When I learned how to code, we were still using Windows 3.1, so there was no way the hospital was using the internet. But even without online resources, I had a medical dictionary on my shelf. And it was used often. How will you know if something is important if you don't even know what it means? While you're at it, make sure you also have access to an English dictionary. I know it's a novelty, but you will also find complex nonmedical words in the operative report (or even in your code descriptions). If you don't know what it means, look it up. Tedious, I know, but you will learn. Of course, you might feel like Billie Dawn from Born Yesterday, but you will learn. (Don't understand the movie reference? Look it up!).
- Rule 3 - Just Like Ragu, It's Probably in There: In school we hear terms like "it's bundled" or "separate procedure" but what does that really mean? Well, it means it's integral to the main procedure and don't code it out separate. What's included? Well, pretty much anything that has to be done in order to accomplish the main procedure. Taking out an appendix? Well, then the incision (or creation of ports for laparascopic instruments) is included. So is the closure at the end of the procedure. I don't know about you, but if I have my appendix taken out I sure hope the physician remembers to suture me closed at the end. All those things are like regular ingredients in Ragu pasta sauce - tomatoes, oregano, garlic. It's in there! So don't code each component out separately. Now, had they decided to do a liver biopsy while in there, that's different. That's like throwing a banana in the pasta sauce. So it gets coded separately.
- Rule 4 - You Will Only Use 10-20% of the Operative Report: Don't feel like you need to use every word in the operative report to code the case. The fact is, the operative report isn't about you, it's about the patient and it's a communication tool for clinicians. It just happens to double nicely as a recording of everything that happened to the patient and can substantiate coding and billing. It's up to you to determine what's important in the documentation. There's a reason we use coding for billing - your codes actually fit on a 1-page claim form so the insurance company doesn't have to read through every single medical record.
- Rule 5 - Know the Procedure: Okay, maybe I should have led off with that one. Medical terminology is, quite literally a foreign language. In fact, it's at least two foreign languages: Latin and Greek. So when you say "it's Greek to me," you're being quite literal. A really good medical terminology class will solve a lot of problems. You may think esophagogastroduodenoscopy is a really big word until you break it down and realize it's visualization (scopy) of the esophagus (esophago), stomach (gastric), and part of the small intestine (duodeno). You also need to know your anatomy. You need to know when they operate on a structure that's part of a bigger structure (e.g., mesentary of the intestines) vs. a different organ altogether (like in the appendix/liver example above). After you learn medical terminology and anatomy and physiology, that's half the battle. The rest of the battle can typically be solved with Google. Come to think of it, there are few things that can't be solved with Google. I'm pretty sure there will be a support group some day for Google-aholics, but in the mean time, I highly encourage you to google a procedure if you don't know what it is. I never remember what a Whipple procedure is. But I can google it in about 10 seconds. Just be careful which website you select from your Google search list - something from the Mayo Clinic is probably more reliable than lazy-Dan-explains-medical-procedures.com.
- Rule 6 - There is Crying in Coding, Just Don't Let Anyone See It: Oh, how I wish I could tell you I had that one down. But I'm pretty transparent when it comes to being frustrated. And I've had students cry in frustration when trying to code case studies. But try to minimize your public displays of tearful frustration and remember this - we've all been there and this is hard. It's okay to not know all the answers all the time.