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Dr. Campbell: New coding system could be medical nightmare

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The rollout of the Affordable Care Act has dominated the political and medical headlines since October.  However, other health care changes are on the horizon (and have gone virtually unnoticed by the public) that have the potential to impact our ability to treat patients.  

In fact, the technical and time-consuming aspects of these new government-mandated changes for 2014 may result in even larger scale computer glitches than those seen with the Obamacare website.   This week in the New York Times, author Andrew Pollack describes a new government medical coding system that must be implemented in 2014.

For decades, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has established billing codes for documentation and reimbursement purposes.  These codes are created by the World Health Organization to standardize diagnoses to track diseases throughout the world – in other words, it allows for comparative study.  

But several governments (such as the U.S., France, Germany, Canada, and others) have long adopted these codes as a way to standardize billing for medical procedures.  These codes have long fallen short of specifically describing what is actually going on with the patient and have led to difficulties in accurately charging for medical services and procedures.  There is now a new iteration of the coding system known as ICD-10 that will be mandated by the U.S. government effective this fall.   Luckily, there are now codes for injuries that occur while skiing on water skis that are on fire as well as codes for orca bites.  As you may imagine, these codes will streamline my ability to treat my patients with these extremely common ailments.

So why is it that our government and its agencies think that their administrators are well-qualified to develop codes for medical diagnoses?  How is it that bizarre codes for humorous and extremely unlikely scenarios are being included and programmed into the system?  

If you ask CMS administrators, they will tell you that these new codes were adopted by the government after careful consultation with coding experts, CMS administrators and physician advisors.  However, I am not exactly sure which physicians were involved in signing off on codes for "balloon accidents," "spacecraft crash injuries" and "injuries associated with a prolonged stay in a weightless environment."  

The issue at hand is the fact that government is once again working to regulate situations and concepts that it does not understand.  Moreover, they mandate changes without adequate input from experts in the field in which they plan to regulate (such as physicians.)

Meanwhile, I expect that the technology side of implementation of the new coding system is likely to be plagued with errors and inefficiencies.  Imagine developing software that will assist in billing and coding of numerous diagnoses for each patient--including "struck by a macaw" and "bitten by a sea lion" (yes, these actually exist).  ICD-10 will increase the number of available codes from 17K to more than 155K.  From a physician/provider standpoint, the coding process will likely bring efficiency and productivity to a slow crawl as the new codes are phased in.  

In a survey conducted earlier last year, 90 percent of physicians expressed significant concern over the transition and nearly 75 percent anticipate a negative impact on their practice (both operationally and financially).  Practices and hospital systems will now require new employees (at a cost that ultimately will be passed on to the consumer) that are trained and expert in applying the new codes in order to keep up with government mandates.  Over the last year, physicians have been subjected to online courses and training in the new ICD-10 coding system--many leaving the classes more confused than when they began.

Ultimately, physicians will have to change the way in which they document office visits and procedures in order to ensure reimbursement.  Altogether, these changes are likely to make an overloaded system even more cumbersome.  As we have seen with Obamacare and other government related policy changes, more work is created, more inefficiencies are exposed _ in the end, the patient will suffer.  

Providers will become overwhelmed by even more government related paperwork and documentation requirements.  More time spent on coding orca bites means less time in the exam room chatting with a patient.  My, how medicine has changed.

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