Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Evolution of the Coder

When I started the HIM program at the local community college in... ahem, a few years ago (sly smile), I split my time working as a file clerk in a doctor's office and a catch-all clerk in a physician's billing office. The doctor's office was a family practice managed by the owner of the billing office, which was located just next door. I remember my coworkers asking me why I was going to school to learn about medical records because I was already a file clerk. I also remember hearing one of the billers grumble about an insurance company denying claims for a male patient with pelvic pain and "can't men have pelvic pain?!"

Well, it didn't take me long to realize that the HIM field was more than filing - especially these days as hospitals and physicians move to electronic health records. And it didn't take me long to learn that, at least in the eyes of ICD-9-CM, men can't have pelvic pain - at least not the kind classified to code 625.9, Unspecified symptom associated with female genital organs (as evidenced by the word "female" in the code description and the little female symbol next to the code).

That was a long time ago and a lot has changed in the coding (and HIM) field since then. As a consultant, I work with hospitals to identify areas for coding education and then develop a curriculum and deliver training. It used to be as simple as telling my client to have all their coders at the training at a specific time and date. But not anymore. You see, the coders in a hospital aren't just sitting in the coding unit (physical or virtual) anymore. There could be coders all across a hospital. There could be people coding who don't even know they're coding. There could be nurses working with doctors to improve their documentation to ensure proper code-based reimbursement. There could be clinic coders coding the professional side for physicians working in hospital-based clinics. Finding coders in a facility is a challenge!

In short, coding has evolved.

And this is a great thing - this means that if you have the skill to be a coder - and it is a skill - there are many directions your career path can take you. So what's your passion? Do you relate to transactional work? Are you production oriented? Do you like the clinical puzzle involved in coding and secretly harbor fantasies of being Dr. Gregory House and solving the diagnostic dilemma in front of you? Do you like finance? Are you a data hound? Do you love to do research? If you answered yes to any of the above, there's a niche for you in coding.

The Transactional/Production Coder
I'll be honest. As a coder, my production, in general, stinks. At least it did the last time I did it. Some days I could concentrate very well and knock out a bunch of records. Some days it was like ADD kicked in and I just couldn't concentrate on the documentation in front of me. But there is a group of very special people who are production-based and enjoy transactional work. These are the people who are a coding manager's dream. They come to work, know how many accounts they need to code for the day, and they get it done. I have a lot of respect for those people. I wish that was me!

The Dr. House Coder
I use the TV show, House, a lot in my training sessions and blogs. I watch it and see if I can diagnose the patient before Dr. House. Usually not. But it's fun to try! Physicians and nurses alike are often surprised when they talk to coders to learn how much coders know about clinical practice and disease process. If you read enough medical records in your lifetime and see the treatment plans, it starts to rub off! If you love the clinical stuff like me, there's a lot of opportunity. Clinical documentation improvement (CDI) programs are popping up all over hospitals. The point: get the physician to document as specific as possible to ensure proper reimbursement for the hospital. Clinical documentation specialist (CDSs) are on the floor, looking at charts while the patient is in-house and talking directly with physicians. This is a job that can be done by a nurse or a coder who has been given proper clinical training. Some hospitals employ both coders and nurses as CDSs for a collaborative effort. I don't really have a desire to go back to working for a hospital, but if I did, I think I would like to be a CDS.

The Code-Based Reimbursement Coder
More and more I see coders being placed in the billing departments of hospitals. Or certified coders being given the role of charge description master (CDM) analyst. As Medicare and other code-based payers get really sticky with their billing requirements, it gets more difficult to get a clean claim out the door. Coders working on the revenue side are typically ensuring hospital systems that incorporate the use of codes are updated and interfacing/functioning properly.

A CDM analyst maintains the hospitals list of charges. If you're looking for a picture of what a CDM looks like, it's a massive spreadsheet for each department in the hospital with a line item for everything they could possibly charge for along with prices for those services and supplies. And some of those line items are attached to codes. CDM analysts work with clinical department heads to make sure charges are set up for all their services and supplies. They also make sure CPT and HCPCS codes in the CDM are updated according to regulatory standards. They might be called into a clinical department to assist in training personnel who are responsible for charging.

For lack of a better title, the code-based reimbursement analyst (an aptly named title I borrowed from a former employer where I was responsible for training code-based reimbursement analysts), is a catch-all before a claim goes out the door. Or someone who audits claims and makes corrections. This person may be responsible for working NCCI edits to get claims through the hospital scrubber and may also work closely with the coders, educating them on the latest Medicare reimbursement changes.

Code-based reimbursement analysts may also be placed in departments prone to frequent coding and charging errors, like interventional radiology, wound care, or injections and infusions. These specialty coders often work not only with documentation, but also with nurses entering charges and physicians regarding their documentation. They may also have a link to billing so they can see how their coding is translating to claim denials and errors.

If you like the revenue and compliance side of coding, there are lots of opportunities for you. Students and recent grads interested in this area often ask me where they can get training or certification for this type of job. Well, there really isn't a specific type of training for it. The best thing you can do is try to get your foot in the door and learn on the job. The coding piece of this is probably the hardest - the rest you learn from your employer. Revenue cycle is part of what I do as a consultant and I like it. I particularly like trying to figure out the complex changes Medicare has put into effect and walking that tightrope between ensuring the provider is getting paid as much as possible while maintaining revenue compliance. Let's just call this code-based coder the "Goldilocks" coder - don't code too much, don't code too little, code just right!

The Data Coder
Maybe you like analyzing data. I for one, find it dull after about 15 minutes. But I've had the joy of working with people who love doing that so we can leverage our skills for the greater good. There are many opportunities for the data-oriented coder. Of course, we should all be concerned about data integrity and coding what was done. But there are positions for people who want to slice and dice and interpret coded data. Registry programs (e.g., cancer, trauma, cardiac) often incorporate the use of codes and then some. The plus to being a registrar is that you usually become an expert in one particular area. For example, I know a cancer registrar who has been to enough tumor board meetings where cancer cases are discussed among physicians, she can effectively diagnose skin cancers most of the time (of course, the real diagnosis comes from a physician!).

Coded data is used by many - health departments, clearinghouses, universities, state hospital associations - and the list goes on. As the government becomes more concerned about outcomes of care and pay-for-performance in hospitals, there is a heavier reliance on accurate coded data. Independent companies like HealthGrades rely on coded data to compare the quality of healthcare among providers and report it to consumers. Someone is behind that data ensuring it's accuracy and interpreting it's impact and meaning. That could be you!

The "Why" Coder
I saved the best for last - well, in my opinion anyway. The "why" coder is the one who loves research and wants to know why. Why will Medicare not pay for a biopsy and an excision of a lesion done at the same time? Why does Medicare pay less for certain patients who have been discharged to a nursing home rather than home? What's the difference between two codes that at first glance appear to have identical code descriptions? Why can't men have pelvic pain?! And this is why I have trouble being a production coder. It's hard to produce when you keep asking why. Luckily, I am able to put my investigative skills to work and do research to build training materials for other coders - like production coders - so they can do their jobs efficiently. The best thing about the "why" coder is that it's free. You can learn just about anything you ever wanted to know about Medicare and their why's and not pay a cent. Of course, the price for accessing public domain information is the sheer amount of information you need to paw through to answer a single question - it can be several hundred pages.

So what's your passion? What kind of coder will you be? The opportunities are endless and we need all kinds!


  1. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks.

    Radiology Billing and Coding

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    Radiology Billing and Coding

  3. If you are on Facebook, you can join the Coder Coach group, where I post links to the blog. Right now I don't have an email subscription for the blog.

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    Medicare Billing