Monday, January 31, 2011

Back Away from the Keyboard...

This morning my alarm clock went off at 7:00am, just as it does on most work days. Like most anal-retentive coders, I have my morning routine, which includes the usual suspects like brushing teeth and shuffling into the kitchen for that all important initial cup of coffee. Once my breath is fresh and my eyelids are open, I flip on the computer and wallah! I'm at work for the day. My work day routine begins by scanning my work, Coder Coach, and client email accounts. Sometimes I venture onto the Coder Coach page on Facebook to see if anyone has posted anything. Maybe I send or receive an IM to or from a client or coworker. Maybe I actually pick up the phone and call someone (not terribly likely). But rarely, in my daily dealings as a remote coding consultant, does my work involve face-to-face communication with people. And frankly, I miss it.

Let me be clear. I love communicating through email. I have relationships with friends in other states solely based on email. I have trouble communicating with people who hate email. I have access to six email accounts, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Yahoo IM on my iPhone. In other words, I am always virtually connected to just about any of my contacts at any given time. But there is no substitute for in person communication. And that's part of the reason why my Coder Coach events are not offered in an audio conference format.

I've been asked by several people from out of state to offer my Coder Coach events as webinars. Besides the fact that I have oodles of experience as a webinar presenter - for several years I presented 2-3 webinars per month - and I understand all too painfully well everything that could possibly go wrong with the technology aspect of the presentation (I know Murphy well!), I have no desire to feed into the increasing trend of discouraging face-to-face communication. And speaking of feeding, public speaking is one of my favorite things - it energizes me and feeds my desire to keep going with my career. Webinars just aren't the same. Frankly, my pets don't seem as enthused about learning coding as my human audiences (normally) do!

And it's not just the novices who want to network from afar. This new year means a lot of committee and board work for me. And even though my board meetings are offered in a conference call format, I try to attend the meetings in person. Two of the committees I work with have decided not to offer conference calls for their meetings because the chair persons are growing concerned about the lack of face-to-face networking among professionals. There are more opportunities to get educated remotely and that means that those face-to-face networking opportunities are more important than ever. Because if you're trying to break into the industry, look for a new job, or just (as my father used to say), "blow the stink off," you need to get away from your gadgets, get out of the house, and start talking to people.

So I encourage all of you to back away from the keyboard every now and then... that is, after you've researched online for the best local networking event. And get out and meet someone in person!

For local events near you, visit AHIMA's state component association web page at or the AAPC's local chapter finder web page at:

Happy networking!

Friday, January 14, 2011

I Have a Degree, Why do I Have to Volunteer?

I meet so many people who are out there looking for their initial break into the field of coding. And so many of them are discouraged when they are continuously told that they need experience in order to be eligible for hire. The first recommendation I make is always to volunteer and many times that advice is met with resentment - "I have a degree - why should I have to volunteer?"

Well this is where I usually try to put on my politically correct attitude and explain why but I think what I'm going to start saying is "I have a degree, certifications, and 15 years of experience and I volunteer." As a matter of fact, I can't name a single person in the coding field who's successful who doesn't continue to volunteer because so much of the coding profession is governed by volunteers. And if you're a member of AHIMA or the AAPC and you don't feel like you're getting enough out of your membership (or, like me, you're just really passionate about what you do), you have the ability to get involved and affect change.

So let's talk about what volunteering entails and the kinds of doors it can open.

Pink Ladies and Candy Stripers
If you've ever visited a hospital you've seen them. They sport little lab-type coats in pastel (usually pink) colors and work in the hospital gift shop. They're the volunteers that most of us think of when we think of volunteering in a hospital. Or maybe you were picturing the candy cane jumpers of the candy stripers. Well, there's more to volunteering in a hospital than being a pink lady or candy striper.

There is a department in each hospital responsible for selecting, training, and scheduling volunteers. And since most people who offer to volunteer in a hospital prefer to work directly with patients and the public, this leaves prime voluntary real estate in the HIM department. If you offer to volunteer at a hospital and specifically request to work in the HIM department, chances are pretty good the competition is low (unless you told your fellow classmates about this blog!).

Okay, so volunteering in an HIM department isn't going to be glamorous. You won't be coding charts your first day there. But if they use paper records, you might be hunting for records for the coders to code. You might be scanning in paper forms into the electronic medical record. The point is, once you're in the department, you can start to observe the inner workings of an HIM department. And if you pay attention and ask questions, your experience will come quicker than you ever imagined.

Professional Volunteering
I used to feel bad for not spending more time at the local animal shelter volunteering. I just felt like I needed to be doing something in my spare time rather than meeting my friends for dinner. But I soon realized that I had ramped up my professional volunteering so much, that it was probably okay I didn't have time to go pet 200 cats on a Saturday afternoon. My pets appreciate that I don't come home smelling like 200 cats anymore!

The best career advice I can give is to join one or both of the national coding associations: either the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC) or the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA). If you want to get hired, you go where the employers are and they're members of AAPC and AHIMA. But becoming a member isn't enough. Now you need to network. And members of the AAPC and AHIMA network at events. So you need to go to the meetings and start talking!

This is usually where someone tells me how expensive those events are. And that cost is on top of the membership fees. If you don't have a job, you don't have the money to attend. Yes, it's a catch 22, but there's a loophole! The people who put those programs together are professional volunteers. And often, as a reward for their work, they get to attend for - wait for it - **free**. Or maybe a hefty discount. The point is, if you really want to attend, there are no excuses.

The professional organizations are made up of local organizations - state and/or regional - and they usually have boards. Boards are made up of elected individuals who are volunteering to run things on a local level. Whether it be a local AAPC chapter or your state AHIMA component state association, the boards get together for regular meetings to keep the organization afloat. They also discuss issues pertinent to the industry and how hospitals and physicians are reacting. Just attending these meetings can be an eye opener to the real challenges HIM and coding professionals face. There's also a lot of networking that happens at these meetings. I've both hired and been hired from networking at such events. And if you offer to chair or sit on a committee, it can be a great way to show off your skills and work ethic and make employers stand up and take notice.

I currently sit on a board that has a student liaison and at one of our meetings I had the opportunity to chat with her. She was so excited to be there and so excited about the chance to be a part of the board. I asked her how she heard about it and she said a mentor recommended becoming a member and from there she took the lead and asked the president about getting involved. We happened to have the student liaison position available.

But once you're in, I recommend keeping up the volunteering. I know a lot of colleagues who complain about how the organizations are run. These are usually people who don't vote in the organization elections or offer to help out either. So I look upon professional volunteering much as I do being an American citizen. I vote to earn the right to complain when things don't go how I'd like. And I volunteer in organizations so I can be a part of the change - even though things don't always go my way!

Put it on Your Resume
Volunteering isn't just a futile exercise to torture you and make you give up your precious time. It's a key component of your resume. Put everything you've done as a volunteer on your resume because it shows your commitment to the industry and it could mean the difference between equally qualified applicants.

When I first started running for board positions, I remember how inconsequential my volunteer experience looked compared to other candidates. But just build them one at a time - we all have to start somewhere. And over time, you'll see your list snowball. Here's an example of my volunteer history, as it appears on my resume:
  • 2010-2011 - First Year Director, Colorado Health Information Management Association (CHIMA)
  • 2011 - ICD-10 Task Force Chair, CHIMA
  • 2009-present - Coder Coach mentor
  • 2009 - Past President, Northern Colorado Health Information Management Association (NCHIMA)
  • 2008 - President, NCHIMA
  • 2007 - President-Elect, NCHIMA
  • 2005-2006 - Program Co-Chair, NCHIMA
  • 1999-2001 - Data Quality Committee Chair, CHIMA
  • 1998-1999 - Alternate Delegate, CHIMA
It's a Small, Small World
Here's an important thing to keep in mind when volunteering. Coding is a very small industry in the grand scheme of things, so be careful what you say about whom when you are working in a voluntary capacity. Or any capacity, really. Don't burn bridges because it's not a matter of if, but when will you come across this person again? And don't think moving out of state is going to help out much. There a lot of coding professionals, myself included, who cross state lines. And rumors spread like wildfire, which can be both good and bad for you. Make sure you're one of the people that when someone decides to gossip, they say, "Have you ever met _____? She did some work on a committee I was on and she has great potential for the future!"

So come on out and join my colleagues and me for some volunteering - it's not just for novices!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

What the Heck is a DRG? And Why Should I Care About Case Mix?

So you want to be a coder. And not just that, you want to be a hospital coder because, on average, they make more money than physician coders. And you don't just want to be a hospital coder, you want to be an inpatient hospital coder because then you get to look at the whole chart and piece together the patient's clinical picture. If this is your goal, then everything you need to know you will not learn in school. And that's mainly because there is so much to learn and practical experience is key.

Most of all, if you want to be an inpatient coder, you need to know diagnosis-related groups (DRGs) because in hospitals, it's all about DRGs and case mix - and compliance. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, fear not - here's a primer on DRGs! I wish I could say I cover it all here, but this is just a beginning!

What is a DRG?
The ICD-9-CM coding system contains about 16,000 diagnosis codes and ICD-10-CM contains over 68,000 codes. Imagine trying to determine a payment amount for each individual condition. And that doesn't include accounting for procedures. The most logical solution is to create a system that allows for broader classification of conditions and services for easier comparison and assignment into payment categories. DRGs were created for this purpose. I look at DRGs as a way to "organize the junk drawer" where patients are grouped into different categories based on similar conditions and cost to treat the patient.

DRGs were first developed at Yale University in 1975 for the purpose of grouping together patients with similar treatments and conditions for comparative studies. On October 1, 1983, DRGs were adopted by Medicare as a basis of payment for inpatient hospital services in order to attempt to control hospital costs. Since then, the original DRG system has been changed and advanced by various companies and agencies and represents a rather generic term. These days, we have various DRG systems in use - some proprietary and some a matter of public record - all of which group patients in different ways. Two of the main DRG systems currently in use are the Medicare Severity DRG (MS-DRGs) and 3M's All Patient Refined DRGs (APR-DRGs). Different DRG systems are used by different payers.

How to Get a DRG
All DRG systems are a little different, but the basic premise is the same. DRGs are based on codes. In effect, DRGs are codes made up of codes. The following elements are taken into consideration when grouping a DRG:
  • ICD-9-CM diagnosis codes
  • ICD-9-CM procedure codes
  • Discharge disposition
  • Patient gender
  • Patient age
  • Coding definitions as defined by the Uniform Hospital Discharge Data Set (UHDDS) - in other words, the sequence of codes on the claim
Back in the 80s, DRGs were grouped manually using decision trees. These days, DRGs are grouped with the touch of a button and DRG groupers are a big part of encoding software. But I would be doing you a disservice if I didn't at least give you an idea of the grouper logic. As I mentioned, there are different DRG systems and probably the most popular is the MS-DRG system, so I will explain how MS-DRG grouper logic works.

MS-DRG Grouper Logic
The first step in assigning an MS-DRG is to classify the case into one of the 25 major diagnostic categories (MDC). These MDCs are based on the principal (first) diagnosis and, with a few exceptions, are based on body systems, such as the female reproductive system. Five MDCs are not based on body systems (injuries, poison and toxic effect of drugs; burns; factors influencing health status (V codes); multiple significant trauma; and human immunodeficiency virus infection). Organ transplant cases are not assigned to MDCs, but are immediately classified based on procedure, rather than diagnosis. These are called pre-MDC DRGs.

Once a case has been assigned into an MDC (with the exception of the transplant pre-MDCs), it is determined to be either medical or surgical. Surgical cases require more resource consumption (that's industry speak for "costs more!"), so they must be separated from the medical cases. If there are no procedure codes on the case (e.g., a patient with pneumonia may have no procedure codes), then it's simple - it's a medical case. But if the patient had a procedure, that procedure may or may not be considered surgical. For example, an appendectomy is quite clearly a surgical procedure. But something like suturing a laceration is not. It's all based on resource consumption - the cost of performing the procedure. In general, anything requiring an operating room is surgical.

Quick sidebar here - this is why skin debridement is such a hot topic in the world of coding compliance. Nonexcisional debridement (code 86.28) groups as a medical case. However, excisional debridement (code 86.22) groups as a surgical case and the change in reimbursement is rather drastic.

Okay, so now that we have our MDC and a designation as medical or surgical, we need to look at the other diagnoses on the claim. Right now, Medicare is able to process the first 9 diagnoses on the claim (even though 18 are reportable). These other diagnoses, depending on their severity, may be designated as complications and comorbidities (CCs) or major complications and comorbidities (MCCs). Medicare maintains lists of CCs and MCCs and updates them annually. CCs and MCCs are conditions that have been identified as significantly impacting hospital costs for treating patient with those conditions. For example, it's been determined that congestive heart failure without further specification does not significantly impact costs and it is not a CC/MCC. However, patients with chronic systolic or diastolic heart failure do have slightly higher costs, so those conditions are CCs. More so, patients with acute systolic or diastolic heart failure have even higher costs, so they are designated as MCCs. Are you beginning to see how slight changes in a physician's diagnostic statement impact coding and thus payment?

DRG Weights
Okay, so we know the MDC, whether the case is medical or surgical, and whether or not there are any CCs or MCCs. How does that translate into reimbursement? Well, if you're using an encoder (and if you code for a hospital, you will), you hit a button and presto! You have a DRG with a relative weight. Now if only you knew what that relative weight meant. The DRG relative weight is the average amount of resources it takes to treat a patient in that DRG. Huh?

Let me demonstrate. The baseline relative weight is 1 and represents average resource consumption for all patients. Anything less than 1 uses less than average resources. Anything above 1 uses more than average resources. So let's compare some respiratory MS-DRGs:
  • MS-DRG for lung transplant has a relative weight of 9.3350
  • MS-DRG for simple pneumonia (no CC/MCC) has a relative weight of 0.7096
  • MS-DRG for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease with an MCC has a weight of 1.1924
You can see how different combinations of codes lead to different MS-DRGs with different relative weights. In order to convert that into monetary terms, we multiply the relative weight by the hospital base rate. Now I'm sure you want to know how to get that hospital base rate. Me too. Well, up to a point. The base rate is exclusive to each hospital and takes a lot of historical, facility-specific data into account, like what they've been paid in the past, whether or not they are an urban or rural hospital, and how much the hospital pays out in wages. That's just more math than my poor little head can comprehend! So for the purposes of this exercise, let's pretend like this hospital - we'll call it Happyville Hospital - has a base rate of $5000. So if we multiply the relative weights above by $5000, our reimbursement for those cases, respectively, is $46,675, $3,548, and $5,962.

Case Mix
You just might be asked in an interview if you understand case mix. It's a good indication of whether or not someone really understands DRGs. And I have to admit, in my sometimes sadistic manner, I like seeing that look of glazed-over confusion on someone's face when I bring up case mix. But case mix is simple. It's the average relative weight for a hospital. So get out a big piece of paper for your hospital and start writing down the relative weights for every single case and then divide to get your average. Okay, so it's computerized now. But that's all case mix is - an average.

In the industry, we officially refer to case mix as the type of patients a hospital treats. Let's say at Happyville, we have a high volume of transplant cases plus a trauma center and a well-renowned cardiac program. These are all highly weighted types of cases and our overall case mix will be higher than say, Anytown Hospital down the street that has no trauma center, no transplant program, and basic cardiac services (they transfer all their serious cardiac cases to Happyville!). Happyville's case mix will be higher than Anytown's.

As a coder, you don't need to know what your specific hospital's case mix is at any given time. But knowing what impacts case mix is an indication that you know your stuff. First and foremost, case mix fluctuates. Most hospitals monitor case mix on a monthly basis because changes in case mix are a precursor to changes in reimbursement. Of course your CFO wants case mix to continue to rise, but that could be a red flag. And he certainly doesn't want case mix to fall. If case mix begins to decrease, the first place hospital administration usually looks is coding - after all, case mix is based on DRGs, which are based on codes. But there are lots of things that can impact case mix and many of them have nothing to do with coding, such as:
  • The addition or removal of a heavy admitting physician - especially specialty surgeons
  • Opening or closing a specialty unit
  • Changes in a facility's trauma level designation
  • Movement of cases from the inpatient setting to outpatient, and
  • Anything else that impacts the type of services the hospital provides
Your Life as an Inpatient Coder
As an inpatient coder your job is to make sure you get all the codes on the claim in the correct order so that the accurate DRG is assigned and the hospital gets paid appropriately. When I put it that way, it sounds so easy! The reality is, with more and more patients being treated as outpatients, those who are admitted as inpatients are sicker than they've ever been. And sicker means harder to code. For instance, the patient comes in with shortness of breath and the final diagnosis is acute exacerbation of COPD, stapholococcal pneumonia, and respiratory failure. How you code and sequence the case will determine the appropriate DRG and reimbursement. The good news is, you'll have an encoder to help you model the DRGs and see what pays what. The bad news is, you have to paw through the medical record to determine the true underlying cause of that shortness of breath.

So are you ready for the challenge? Are you ready to apply DRGs?