Thursday, December 17, 2015

Top 10 Cringe-Worthy Things Wannabe Coders Say

My blog is over six years old!  Seriously, I just checked.  In the last six years as I've put myself out there as the Coder Coach, I've spoken either personally, over the phone, or via email to hundreds - okay, it's really probably dozens - of coders and tried to answer their questions about what it takes to be a coder.  I've been amazed at how those answers have changed since then, from the evolution of technology, which allows most coders to work remotely to finally seeing ICD-10 come to fruition. So I figure it's about time I published my top 10 list: the most cringe-worthy things people say when they tell me they want to be a coder.

Don't get me wrong.  My intent is not to put anyone off, but over the last six years, this coding thing has really caught on and I wouldn't want to steer anyone into a career that isn't right for them.  So take a moment to read through the list and decide if you're guilty of any of these. Since David Letterman's Late Show is no longer a thing, consider this my replacement Top Ten List.

And before you get upset, please read the sign: I'm not arguing, I'm just explaining why I'm right.  In other words, I'm being a coder (occupational hazard).

Number 10:Which type of coder pays the most?

Answer:  A really good one.  Focus your efforts on landing a job and then mastering it.  If you choose your work setting solely for making money, you may find yourself miserable and (maybe) sort of well off.  If you choose to follow your passion, the possibilities - and pay check - are pretty much endless.  Employers are willing to pay good money for really good coders who don't complain about how much they hate their jobs.  I don't actually do any hiring, but if I did, I would hire the hungry novice coder with a good attitude and a willingness to learn over the experienced grouchy coder who seems to hate her job.

Number 9: Should I be a hospital or physician coder?

Have you ever seen the movie City Slickers?  The answer is in that movie when Jack Palance says the meaning to life is "one thing."  Billy Crystal asks him, with great interest, what that one thing is.  The answer: that's what you've gotta figure out.  You and only you can decide which setting is right for you and there is no right or wrong answer.  I love getting an inpatient hospital chart and trying to figure out the latest surgical procedures and how to code them.  I would rather poke my eyes out with a dull pencil than assign an E/M level to a physician's chart.  I know other coders who love E/M coding.  It's like being a cat person or a dog person.  You will probably find that you like one more than the other and there is no wrong answer (unless you are not a cat person, and then we can't be friends anymore).

Number 8: No one will hire me with the coding credential I have; they all want something else

This is probably going to sting a bit, so brace yourself.  Why did you pay to get credential without first looking at local job postings and doing some research?  If you are reading this before going to school or getting certified, then do your homework before you pay any money to any educational institution.  All kinds of people will tell you anything to get your money.  Only local employers will be honest about what credentials they want.

Number 7: Where can I get free continuing education credits?

Free CEUs are out there, you just have to look for them.  Most AAPC local chapters offer free monthly educational sessions.  There are opportunities to summarize articles and get credit.  Coding Clinic offers a quarterly webinar that is free.  Other organizations offer free CEU credits.  Do an internet search and you may be surprised what you will find.  Did you do something, like attend grand rounds at a hospital, that you thought was very educational but you don't have a certificate?  Contact the certifying body and see if they will grant you CEUs for it.

Number 6: I can't afford to join AHIMA or AAPC

This one might sting too.  Find a way to make it happen.  As far as I'm concerned, when I hear this, it tells me you don't want it bad enough.  Granted, I started very young and was still living at home when I first joined AHIMA, but make no mistake, I worked hard to get where I am today. Find a way to afford that membership and show people you are serious about a coding career.  And if you have a credential through and let your membership lapse, you likely lose the credential.  You worked hard for that credential - don't let it go.

Number 5: This is my second (or third) career; I can't afford to start at the bottom

This is a great second or third career for people who discover they missed their passion until later in life.  But here's the reality: you still likely have to start at the bottom.  I've seen people find their way into coding by some very unusual means, but the ones who make it are the tenacious ones who won't take no for an answer.  Pretty much no one starts out in their dream coding job.  You will have to pay your dues.  And please don't think that means  I can't appreciate your experience in your previous profession.  There are definitely things you can bring to the table, but remember that in coding, you are a novice.  I'm a great coder, but I'm pretty sure if I decided to change careers tomorrow and become an aerospace engineer, there would be a bit of a learning curve. 

Number 4: Will you mentor me?

It's an innocent question and I'm flattered.  Really.  But I decided a long time ago that I would mentor from afar by penning this blog.  I don't have a consistent schedule to be able to spend a lot of quality one-on-one time mentoring.  But if you email me a specific question, I will do my best to answer it.  My advice is to find someone local to mentor you.  Ask them if they can meet you once a month for lunch and come prepared.  What are the questions you want answers to?  What challenges have they had in their career that they wish someone would have told them when they were getting started?  This is a great entry into your local coding network.

Number 3: I went to school for (fill in the blank) months/years and I'm certified; I'm qualified to be a coder anywhere

No.  You're really not.  I went to school too for two years and let me just tell you that even though I learned some good fundamentals, the real coding world is nothing like I thought it would be.  I learned everything I really needed to know about being a coder on the job, not in school.  I've now been coding for more than 20 years and I hold four different certifications and I have a news flash for you: I am not qualified to code anywhere.  I lack the practical experience of a physician office coder.  I find coding radiation oncology charts waaaaaayyyy outside my comfort zone.  And please don't ask me to fill out an IRF-PAI for inpatient rehabilitation.  In other words, after 20 years, I am not all that and a bag of chips, so please don't insult the world of experienced coders by thinking you have this all figured out.  I learn something new each. and. every. day.  Keep an open mind and be willing to learn - and admit when you're in over your head.  Natural curiosity and a willingness to learn is a good thing.  Acting too big for your britches is not.

Number 2: How can I get experience if no one will hire an inexperienced coder?

I would give anything if people would stop asking me this question.  Because honestly, I don't know the answer.  I don't know what your background is.  I don't know what your aptitude for coding is - and it is a skill that many people don't possess.  I don't know where you've applied or how hard you've tried to sell yourself.  And probably most importantly, I don't have a clue what it's like to try to get a job today because the atmosphere is so different from 20 years ago.  But this is what I do know.  Don't limit yourself to coding jobs.  Find a job - any job - that will require you to have coding knowledge.  When you do an online job search, search on the code sets (ICD-10 or CPT) and not the word coder.  There are so many jobs out there that revolve around coding that aren't traditional coding jobs.  Getting your foot in the door is one step closer to getting that traditional coding job - or something even better than you ever imagined.  And don't forget to network.  If you want to work with coders, surround yourself with coders.  Who you know may be your golden ticket.

And the Number 1 Cringe-Worthy Thing Wannabe Coders Say is: I want to be a coder because I want to work from home

AACK!!!!  Not a good lead in!  And if this is the first statement out of your mouth when you go into an interview, you probably won't get hired because here's a huge industry secret: hiring managers hate hearing that's why you're there.  It's like going on a first date with someone you just met and gushing about how badly you want to get married and have 6 kids. It's just not done.  If this is the real reason you want to be a coder, please re-evaluate.  Coding is a great career if you love it.  If you don't love it, you will be miserable for 8 hours every day.  And if you are miserable at home for 8 hours a day, that can be really depressing.  Also think about the child care aspect.  I often hear people say they want to work from home because they can't afford child care.  Many coding contracts require you to have child care in place.  Coding takes intense concentration and you can't babysit a kid at the same time.  Working from home is a great perk, I will admit, but it is not the reason I have the job I have.  I refer you back to Number 10 above: follow your passion.  If you're lucky, you can make some good money while you do what you love... from home... in your bathrobe.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Reflections of a Coder Coach: Ready to Get Back to Normal

A few weeks ago, it occurred to me that my job hasn't been "normal" for the last six years.  Right around this time six years ago is when I first went to AHIMA's ICD-10 Academy and earned my status as a trainer.  Creating and presenting ICD-10 training materials came soon after that and it wasn't until recently I realized that my job hasn't been normal for the last six years.  And since I've only known my husband for four years, one could argue that he's never known me when I'm normal... er.. at least when my job is normal!

As I look around the articles and social media related to coding, a lot has changed in this industry in the six or seven years that I've put myself out there as the Coder Coach.  When I first started blogging and meeting once a month with coding students and wanna-be's, there weren't a lot of people out there looking to mentor coders.  Now, my voice is one of many as people who never heard of coding before ICD-10 jump on the bandwagon to get a piece of the action.  There have been questions about certifications - which ones to get and how to make sure ICD-10 certification requirements are met.  There have been questions about how to code things we never had to think about before - initial vs. subsequent encounters for injuries and poisonings and root operations based on procedure intent.

I have to be honest and say that in my abnormal day-to-day life as a coder over the last few years, I've had trouble finding my voice and giving advice as a coding mentor.  I no longer feel qualified to tell a coder how to break into the industry because things are so different than they were 20 years ago when I got my start and coding is something that many people are now aware of - not something that people kind of fall into anymore.  Since I fill my days adding to my own intellectual bank by researching procedures and learning how to explain them - and how to code them - I wonder what it is that new coders need right now.  And for everyone who is trying to learn coding, I just want to reach out and give them all a virtual hug because this is, in my humble opinion, about the hardest time to learn this industry.

This week I am working on something I haven't done in years.  I'm reading the Final Rule for the 2016 MS-DRG changes.  That is something I used to read and summarize every year for my clients.  And even though the codes are different and there are some new sections to read in this super long file, I had a moment of realization, a sigh of relief if you will, that this... this is normal!  After we flip the switch on October 1 and everyone starts using ICD-10 (because I have pretty much zero faith in our congressmen to accomplish any earth shattering legislation in two weeks when they're so focused on Donald Trump's run for president), I'm sure there will be a few things that don't go as planned.  But for coders, it's a time for us to return to "normal."  I miss having a general confidence in assigning codes (although this has gotten better as I train more coders!).  I miss code updates!  Oh, how I miss those code updates!  We've had frozen ICD code sets for four years!  I've been following the recommendations made to the Coordination and Maintenance Committee and I can't wait to see which changes they decide to adopt on October 1, 2016.

And maybe when the dust settles a bit and we see how many people really want to stick with coding in ICD-10, I will find my voice again as the Coder Coach.  I sincerely hope so, because I miss meeting people with a passion to learn about my passion and giving them little nuggets of wisdom to help them make a difference in this industry.

Monday, March 9, 2015

So Many Books, So Little Time - Part 3

Yes, it's true.  There are so many books and so little time, I haven't even had time to blog for the last two weeks because I had my nose in two of them.  Thank God for smartphones and long waits at the car wash, or who knows how much longer it would been before I posted again!

In my first post of this series, I gave one of my favorite quotes: "ICD is from Mars, HCPCS is from Venus."  So let's move on to Venus for a bit.  Don't worry, we'll be back to Mars, but I like to talk about the present before I talk about the future (ICD-10), so let's get on with it.  I apologize for the length of this post, but I have a lot to say today!

Three Levels of HCPCS
The Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System (HCPCS) has three different levels and just to make things more interesting, Level I is not usually called HCPCS, it's called CPT.  The Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) was developed and is maintained by the American Medical Association (AMA).

By Physicians for Physicians
What makes CPT so unique is that it is the only coding system in the HIPAA-approved code sets that is developed by physicians for physicians.  The codes you see in the CPT code book are the result of various medical and surgical societies coming together with the AMA to decide which procedures deserve their very own CPT codes.  Every year at the AMA's CPT Symposium, coders from around the country gather in Chicago to listen to these physicians present the coding updates for the coming year.  It's an expensive but valuable conference that I think every coder should experience at least once.  

CPT codes are primarily used by physicians to report procedures and services performed in every possible setting where a physician - or qualified health practitioner - may see  a patient: his office, the hospital, a clinic, a nursing home, etc. But it doesn't stop there.  CPT is also used to report hospital outpatient procedures. Of course, since there are still a lot of procedures that are performed solely as inpatient, hospital coders use a small number of CPT codes in comparison to pro-fee (physician) coders. 

Three within Three
So now that we know that CPT is one of three levels of HCPCS, let's delve a little deeper into this major code set. CPT has three categories of codes and this is still a pretty new concept for me because when I was learning, there were no categories, just CPT codes. 

Category I Codes
Category I codes are the original CPT codes they're what I like to call "grown-up" CPT codes. In order to get a grown-up CPT code, a procedure has to meet some pretty stringent criteria: 

  • The procedure must have FDA approval
  • The procedure must be commonly performed by practitioners nationwide
  • The procedure must have proven efficacy
Once these criteria are met, a five-digit numeric code is assigned to the procedure and unlike ICD (different planet, remember?), these codes do not have decimal points. The codes are arranged in sections by type of procedure or service:

  • Evaluation and Management (E/M) (codes beginning with 9)
  • Anesthesia (codes beginning with 0)
  • Surgery (codes beginning with 1-6)
  • Radiology (codes beginning with 7)
  • Pathology and Laboratory
  • Medicine (the rest of the codes beginning with 9)
The Surgery codes are divided by specialty, for example, the cardiovascular codes begin with 3 and neuro codes begin with 6. After coding for a while, you should be able to look at a CPT code and have a general idea of what it is. A common newbie mistake is to look for the E/M codes in the back of the book. After all, they begin with 9!  But remember that CPT is a coding system that was developed by physicians for physicians and since physicians use E/M codes more than any others, they are in the front of the book for quick reference. 

Here are a few examples of Category I CPT codes:

  • 99283, Emergency department visit for the evaluation and management of a patient, which requires these 3 key components: An expanded problem focused history; An expanded problem focused examination; and Medical decision making of moderate complexity
  • 12002, Simple repair of superficial wounds of scalp, neck, axillae, external genitalia, trunk and/or extremities; 2.6cm to 7.5cm
  • 75625, Aortography, abdominal, by serialography, radiological supervision and interpretation 
Category II CPT Codes
Category II CPT codes are located behind the Category I CPT codes in the book. These are the only CPT codes that are optional. They are used by physicians for tracking performance measures. The purpose of these codes is to decrease administrative burden on providers while collecting information on the quality of patient care. Category II codes are five-digit alphanumeric codes that end in "F."  Here are some examples:

  • 1040F, DSM-5 criteria for major depressive disorder documented at the initial evaluation (MDD, MDD ADOL)1
  • 3775F, Adenoma(s) or other neoplasm detected during screening colonoscopy (SCADR)12
Category II CPT codes are implemented throughout the year and may be implemented before they actually appear in the CPT book.  Code updates can be accessed on the AMA's website

Category III CPT Codes
Category III CPT codes, or "baby codes," as I like to call them, are for emerging technologies that do not meet the criteria of a grown-up Category I CPT code. The Category III codes are found behind the Category II codes in the CPT book. For procedures that are not commonly performed, lack FDA-approval, or don't yet have proven efficacy, Category III codes are assigned. These are temporary codes for a period of 5 years. It has become common practice to see Category III codes reach Category I status with each annual update. For 2015, one of those procedures that was moved was transcatheter mitral valve repair with a prosthesis. The MitraClip uses this relatively new technology to treat mitral regurgitation and it received FDA approval in 2013. 

These are five-digit alphanumeric codes that end in "T." The codes are added throughout the year and may be implemented before they are published in the CPT book. Here are some examples of some Category III codes:

  • 0387T, Transcatheter insertion or replacement of permanent lead less pacemaker, ventricular
  • 0274T, Percutaneous laminotomy/laminectomy (intralaminar approach) for decompression of neural elements, (with or without ligamentous resection, discectomy, facetectomy and/or foraminotomy) any method under indirect image guidance (eg, fluoroscopic, CT), with or without the use of an endoscope, single or multiple levels, unilateral or bilateral; cervical or thoracic
Updates to Category III codes can also be found on the AMA's website throughout the year.  

Staying Updated
Back in the day, it was important just to make sure that you had the most recent year's CPT book to ensure you were using valid codes. However, with the Internet, now it's also important to monitor the CPT updates and errata on a regular basis since changes are made throughout the calendar year. I find it easiest to put a reminder on my calendar the first of each month to check the AMA's website for updates to the errata, which is a list of corrected errors in the CPT code book, as well as changes in Category III codes. Since I don't use Category II codes, I forego that update, but if you are coding them, be sure to look for those updates too. 

By the way, the errata is on the list of approved materials for the AAPC exams. The year I took the CIRCC exam (Certified Interventional Radiology and Cardiology Coder), there were a lot of errors in the electrophysiology code notes and the errata was something I really needed.  Be sure to check it out!

HCPCS codes have a concept specific to HCPCS codes only: modifiers. Think of modifiers like moons that are specific to a planet (and please forget for a moment that Venus doesn't have any moons!). Modifiers apply to HCPCS codes only, not ICD-9-CM codes. They are added to HCPCS codes to provide additional information, such as a bilateral procedure or an unusual service or to indicate that a procedure was discontinued. CPT modifiers are two numeric digits that are appended to a HCPCS code with a dash (e.g., 75710-59). 

All CPT Coders are not Created Equal
The people who assign CPT codes are just as complex as the coding system. Since hospital coders code only a subset of CPT codes, they don't have the same skill set that a pro-fee coder has. Remember that hospital inpatient coders use volume 3 of ICD-9-CM to code procedures. Hospital outpatient coders assign CPT codes for procedures that are found in the outpatient setting. So while the pro-fee coder coding for the cardiologist will code everything from a clinic visit in the physician's office to an angioplasty in the hospital cardiac cath lab to a full blown coronary bypass in the hospital's OR (all using CPT, of course), the outpatient hospital coder would only use CPT to code the angioplasty. Hospitals don't follow conventional E/M rules and coronary bypass is an inpatient procedure that gets coded using ICD-9.   In addition, many of the modifiers used by hospitals are different than those used by physicians. 

These differences are one of the reasons it's so difficult to make the crossover from hospital to pro-fee coding and vice versa. I personally hate E/M coding but I know people who love it. So if you find that one area of coding is not really your cup of tea, fear not!  You may find another area very rewarding. 

I also really can't talk about CPT without bringing up a little tiny thing from the hospital side called a charge description master (CDM), or as it's more commonly called, the charge master.  It's as masterful as it sounds: a line-item listing of everything a hospital department charges for.  Each line item has a description of the charge, charge amount, and sometimes a CPT code.  One of the most difficult transitions I see in pro-fee coders crossing over to the hospital side is not understanding that the coder doesn't code everything.  There are many codes that are assigned automatically by the charge master when a charge is applied to the bill.  This is the case when the CPT code doesn't require a lot of subjective reasoning (e.g.,  lab test or x-ray).  For those procedures and services, such as operative procedures, that require subjective reasoning, a real-live coder will assign the code.  It may sound counter intuitive, but this actually increases the amount of coding-related jobs in a hospital.  The charge master analyst requires coding knowledge as he/she works with hospital departments to set up charges, research appropriate CPT codes for the procedure or service, and determine if it will be hard coded (by the charge master) or soft coded (by a person in coding).  

CPT Made (Too?) Simple
This posting really oversimplifies the CPT code set (that's right, it gets more complex!), but it's a start if you're still finding your way in the coding field.  I have a love-hate relationship with CPT because I find it both challenging (love!) but also frustrating when I hear conflicting coding advice between CMS, the AMA, and medical/surgical societies (hate!).  If you find that you love all aspects of CPT, then you can have a very lucrative career in either the pro-fee or facility coding arenas.

Stay tuned to this series...  Next up is HCPCS Level II.

Monday, February 16, 2015

So Many Books, So Little Time- Part 2

ICD-9-CM Has Procedure Codes?
In part two of my blog series about coding systems, I'd like to present ICD-9-CM, Volume 3. If you've taken classes that are preparing you to take the CPC exam, it might be news to you that ICD-9-CM has three volumes. Or procedure codes. So that's it: volume 3 of ICD-9-CM is procedure codes. 

Hospitals Use It
In part one of this series, I mentioned that HIPAA defines which code sets are used for each health care setting. Volume 3 ICD-9-CM codes are only mandated for hospital inpatient claims. They are a major factor in the determining DRG assignments, which drive hospital inpatient payments. 

Some hospitals also assign ICD-9-CM volume 3 codes for hospital outpatients as well. This is solely for data collection purposes but the codes get "scrubbed" off the outpatient bill and don't go to the insurance company. ICD-9-CM codes may be used to analyze volume of a particular type of procedure performed either as inpatient or outpatient. For example, most appendectomies are performed as outpatients, but if there are complications, a patient may need to be admitted as an inpatient. Hospitals often pull procedure volume for physician credentialing or planning purposes (e.g., to determine if a new specialty unit or more operating rooms are needed).  As a coding manager, which was a long time ago, I wrote reports that pulled data based solely on ICD-9 codes. We didn't use CPT codes to pull data at all at that time. 

Why You May Have Never Heard of It
If you've never heard of volume 3 codes in school, then it's likely that you are taking a coding course for physician coding and billing. Physicians don't use volume 3 of ICD-9. But as mentioned above, hospital coders are using it and if a hospital requires its coders to assign ICD-9 codes on outpatients, they are coding procedures using both ICD-9 and CPT procedure codes. That isn't as complex as it sounds because most hospitals use encoder software that has a crosswalk between the two code sets. Unfortunately, any time you try to map from one code set to another, there can be errors. If they were easily translatable, we wouldn't need two code sets!

Here's another critical tip: if you are buying ICD-9-CM code books, it can be super confusing because there are various publishers and lots of code books with different-yet-similar titles.  If you purchase an ICD-9-CM code book for physicians, it will have only volumes 1 and 2.  If you buy ICD-9-CM for hospitals, you get all three volumes, or the complete ICD-9-CM code set.

What the Codes Look Like
The code format of volume 3 ICD-9-CM codes is different from other code sets with two numeric digits followed by a decimal point and then one or two more numeric digits. The code category ranges are 00-99. It's the most straightforward of all of the HIPAA code sets. 

Some examples of volume 3 codes are:

  • 47.0, Appendectomy
  • 36.97, Insertion of drug-eluting coronary artery stent(s)

Commentary on ICD-9 Volume 3 and Argument for ICD-10
If you weren't trained on ICD-9-CM procedure codes, let me tell you, you aren't missing much. It is the least robust of all of the coding systems. There just simply aren't enough three to four-digit codes to keep up with rapidly evolving healthcare technology. We have run out of available codes. This is my biggest argument for ICD-10 implementation. I hate to say that we can live without a diagnosis code update, but in comparison to procedures, the need isn't as great. We absolutely need a new procedural coding system for ICD in order to keep up with emerging technologies. Plus - and this drives the OCD coder in me crazy - there are hernia repair codes in the eye procedure chapter because it's the only chapter with available codes!  

If you were trained in CPT first and have to learn ICD-9 volume 3 codes, you may find it very difficult, but only because you are trying to find codes as specific as CPT. You will be disappointed because ICD-9 codes aren't that specific. While there are appendectomy codes in CPT for open and laparoscopic approaches, ICD-9 appendectomy codes don't differentiate between open and scope procedures. 

Who Needs to Learn it?
If you're planning to take a certification exam, here are the certifications that have traditionally tested on volume 3 ICD-9-CM codes, but keep an eye on test details for the testing switch over to ICD-10:

  • CCA (Certified Coding Associate) from AHIMA
  • CCS (Certified Coding Specialist) from AHIMA
  • CIC (Certified Inpatient Coder) from AAPC (new)

The COC (Certified Outpatient Coder), formerly called the CPC-H (Certified Professional Coder Hospital-based) does not focus at all on ICD-9 volume 3 codes. It does focus on hospital-related CPT codes and, of course ICD-9 diagnosis codes because we all use that. 

The bottom line on volume 3 codes, in my opinion, is that it is a coding system with a limited shelf life that isn't worth learning at this point in the game if we really move forward with ICD-10-CM/PCS in October (or unless you are planning to take one of the above-mentioned certification exams before ICD-10 is implemented).  There are enough existing coders to focus on the ICD-9 back work that will be involved after ICD-10 implementation and since this code set is only required for hospitals, it affects a pretty small population of coders overall.  But hey, at least you now know what it is and can have an intelligent conversation about it. 

Next up: Level I of HCPCS (AKA CPT)...

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

So Many Books, So Little Time - Part 1

What's Your Idea of a Best Seller?
Every once in a while I page through a magazine taking keen interest in the best seller and "must read" book lists that everyone is talking about.  I usually tear out the pages for books that are interesting so I can download them later.  And then I rarely read them.  Or it takes me literally months to finish a book.  I love to read, but frankly, after a day of reading code books, and spending a lot of time writing, I just don't have the eye or mental energy to crack a book for fun.

My idea of a best seller is a string of code books that I use every day.  Don't worry though, I find other ways to have fun that have nothing to do with coding!

The last time I moved, I had lots of friends helping me lug boxes and it didn't take long for them to zone in on the heaviest ones: they were labeled "code books."  I have code books for various coding systems going back several years and yes, they are heavy.  And it's hard to explain to the layman why I need so many books in such an electronic age.  I've found it can also be challenging to explain the different code sets to novice coders.  But alas, I am going to give it a try in a series of blog posts because you may not be exposed to all coding systems in coding school, but depending on the setting you work in, you may find you have to become familiar with something new.

I Don't Hate Encoders
Let's get one thing out of the way first, though.  I have no issues with computers or encoders.  In fact, I use a computer for almost everything and, like so many people, I am pretty addicted to my iPhone and iPad.  But as a coding trainer, I learned by the book and I teach by the book and will always default to the book when I have a question.  Encoders are only useful when the user understands the logic behind the program and that logic is based on the book.

ICD is from Mars, HCPCS is from Venus
In healthcare, we deal with two major planets of coding systems: the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) and the Health Care Common Procedure Coding System (HCPCS).  And as if that wasn't enough, those coding systems are divided into further classifications with different uses. Coding for a physician practice?  Then you'd better brush up on different parts of the coding spectrum than what you'd see in a hospital. Coding outpatient services for a hospital? Then you need to know something different than what you would need to know if you were coding hospital inpatient services.  Want to know how to code everything?  Then it's time to become familiar with your new best seller list.  This post will start with the basic coding system that everyone uses.

ICD-9-CM Volumes 1 and 2: Everyone Does it 
You probably aren't surprised to hear that the government determines which codes we use in the U.S.  But you may be surprised to hear that the law that defines those coding systems is a little law called HIPAA. Yes, the same law that addresses privacy and security of medical information also tells us which codes we must use to report healthcare services.  This is why some code books boldly state on the cover that they support HIPAA compliance.  In order to make health information portable and comparable,the Healthcare Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) makes sure we're all speaking a common language, expressed in codes, before we exchange data electronically. The privacy and security provisions are simply byproducts of making sure health care data can be shared electronically. 

Every health care case, regardless of provider and setting, has one code set in common: ICD diagnosis codes. This coding system was developed by who?  That's right - it was developed by WHO: the World Health Organization. Here in the U.S. we currently use an adaptation of WHO's ICD, which is currently the ninth version. We call the U.S. version a clinical modification. And thus, we have ICD-9-CM: the International Classification of Diseases, 9th Revision, Clinical Modification.

ICD-9-CM has three volumes. The first two volumes include the diagnosis codes.  This includes the tabular (Volume 1) and index (Volume 2). I'll address volume 3 in part 2 of this series. Bottom line here: every HIPAA-covered entity, which includes hospitals and physicians (and excludes workers' compensation and car insurers) utilizes ICD-9-CM codes to report diagnoses on a claim.

ICD-9-CM codes have 3-5 digits with a decimal point after the first three digits. All codes are numeric except for V codes, which start with a V and then have two numeric digits and may have up to two more digits after the decimal point; and E codes, which start with an E and have three numeric digits and may have an additional digit after a decimal point. E and V codes are actually "supplementary" codes that are not included in the main part of the ICD-9-CM volumes 1 and 2 code set.

Here are some examples of ICD-9-CM codes:

  • 486, Pneumonia, organism unspecified
  • 401.9, Essential hypertension, unspecified
  • 250.00, Diabetes mellitus without mention of complication, Type II or unspecified type, not stated as uncontrolled
Examples of supplementary codes:
  • V08, Asymptomatic HIV infection status
  • V27.0, Outcome of delivery, single liveborn
  • V76.51, Screening for malignant neoplasm of colon
  • E961, Assault by corrosive or caustic substance, except poisoning
  • E885.3, Fall from skis
Regardless of who you plan to code for, you will be using ICD-9-CM diagnosis codes for billing.  As such, this is likely the first coding system you learn.  

You may notice in my picture that my most recent ICD-9-CM code book is from 2012.  That's because that was the last year that we had updates to the coding system.  ICD-9-CM is under a permanent code freeze as we optimistically await ICD-10 implementation.  Don't worry, I will address ICD-10 in future posts.  For now, you are safe using an ICD-9-CM code book from 2012 or newer, but I wouldn't waste money on a new book if (heaven forbid), ICD-10-CM is not implemented this year.  ICD-9-CM remains forever frozen and is no longer being maintained.  If you want to bone up on ICD-9-CM coding guidelines, they are printed in the front of your code book.  Or you can do what I do and download the PDF document so you can easily search the document for something specific.  Here is a link to the last version of the ICD-9-CM Official Guidelines for Coding and Reporting.  

Next up: ICD-9-CM Volume 3...