Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Recovering Encoderaholic

Most coding students spend semesters learning to navigate ICD-9-CM and CPT code books and maybe a little class time plus internship experience learning how to code using an encoder. And then they graduate and, if they move on to a position at a hospital, they start using an encoder almost exclusively. In fact, many hospitals don't purchase code books for their coders because they pump so much money into encoders. The result can be coders who forget how to use their code books all together.

In case you aren't familiar, encoders are software programs that automate the code book. This makes coding faster for the coder and also allows for inclusion of coding and billing edits and coding guidelines and advice. Not to mention, it helps us remember to put fifth digits on all those diagnosis codes! There are two types of encoders: logic-based and book-based. Logic-based encoders are probably the most popular. They ask the coder a series of questions that ultimately lead to code assignment. Book-based encoders are computerized code books in which the coder looks up codes just like in a hard copy book with a few enhancements. Both types tend to include crosswalks from ICD-9-CM to CPT and vice versa.

Sounds great, right? What could possible go wrong?

Well, a lot, actually. And I speak from experience as a recovering encoderaholic.

Don't get me wrong, I like encoders - love them, actually - and can't do my job efficiently or completely without them. But even when I have my encoder up and running, my code books are at my finger tips. And when I teach, I prefer to teach from the book. This was a hard won lesson for me. I remember a coding auditor coming to audit my coworkers and me and, in her exit interview, she made an example of me. She asked me how I came up with a CPT code and my response was "the encoder took me there" and she asked me where my CPT book was and I pointed to the enclosed bin over my desk. And she read me the riot act for not having my CPT book on my desk - and I was coding day surgeries. She then told me what I tell the coders I audit now - "the encoder took me there" is not a valid excuse.

If you're wondering why you have to spend so much time becoming familiar with using the code book, it's because it's the fundamental of coding. If your elementary learning experience was like mine, you had to learn how to do long division before using a calculator and you had to learn to tell time on a clock face before you got a digital watch. Learning to use the code book is important because you need to know the logic behind the encoding programs in order to "check your work" - to steal a phrase from math class! How will you know the encoder led you wrong if you don't know the logic?

If that's not a good enough reason for you, then chew on this. Many people are not passing coding certification exams these days and it's not because they don't know how to code. Many of them have been coding for years - with encoders. And since they have to use books on the test and they aren't efficient in looking up codes in the book, they are unable to finish the test.
You may be asking if encoders will replace the need for coders and many industry experts agree that while there is some limited application to computer-assisted coding (e.g., radiology), the skill of reading a medical record and translating it into code is a subjective skill that requires a human. So don't worry about there being no future in coding due to computerization; just worry about how you will use coding software to enhance, not replace, your coding knowledge.