After a STEMI activation from the field on Monday morning, the cardiac catheterization team scoops the patient away shortly after the paramedics arrive in the Emergency Department (ED). “Well that was a smooth and seamless resuscitation. The patient was barely in the ED for more than 15 minutes,” you think to yourself. You diligently complete your critical care documentation, noting 20 minutes of critical care time, before seeing your next patient. A few weeks later the chart is bounced back and noted as an erroneous documentation of critical care time. The coding department notifies you that the case will be billed as a Level 3 visit (E/M code #99283). Why is that the case?
“What do I see, hear, and smell when I walk into the room?” While the oral boards challenge you to perform the physical exam in a certain way, the day to day examination of patients can vary dramatically. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), however, has physical exam guidelines for billing that conform to neither the exam you learned as a medical student nor the one you’ve refined as a resident. These disparities between what you do and how you’re asked to document it can lead to charts that are frequently down-coded or at risk if audited. The following discussion tries to unravel some of these twisted regulations and will provide tips and tricks on how to improve your physical exam documentation for coding and billing.
Remember the “OPQRST” mnemonic? It stands for Onset, Provocation/Palliation, Quality, Region/Radiation, Severity, Timing. Not only can it guide your history taking, but charting these descriptors also ensures you can code at an appropriate level. The patient’s history is the first example of the balance between essential information and over-documentation. It should be comprehensive, yet be chief-complaint focused . Below, we outline the components of a thorough and billable history.
What makes a good chart? How do you write a good chart quickly? How about a good, efficient, billable chart? On average, residents and practicing physicians report they did not receive adequate training in charting and coding [1–3] and resident charts are more often down-coded due to documentation failures than those of attendings and PAs . Thankfully, resident education in charting has improved over the past 15 years , and a little learning goes a long way to improve confidence  and competence .
In the spirit of #FOAMed, we would like to provide some pearls and pitfalls for EM documentation, starting with a PV card that addresses the basic elements of coding a chart. We hope it’s a handy on-shift reference.
What is a CPT code? What is an E/M level?
In order to uniformly bill for services provided, the American Medical Association (AMA) maintains a list of Current Procedure Terminology (CPT) codes. When you provide medical services to a patient, the chart is billed using a CPT code based on Evaluation & Management (E/M) levels 1-5 . Most ED visits are billed as E/M levels 3-5. In order to objectively categorize a chart, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) created a coding system to assign an E/M level.
What is the difference between a lower and higher E/M level chart?
Three essential elements determine the E/M level: history, physical exam, and medical decision making (MDM). Each of these components is evaluated by a set of guidelines and categorized by the documented elements of the history/physical exam and complexity of MDM. After evaluating each essential element separately, all three are considered in choosing an E/M level and CPT code that is billed. The complexity of your MDM should ultimately determine your E/M level, but under-charting in another area will limit you from billing an appropriately high E/M level.
On your next shift, take a second to review your charts. Could one additional word in the history of present illness (HPI) bump a level 3 up to a level 4? Did you mention your chart biopsy, even if it was just skimming the most recent discharge summary or yesterday’s note? The following PV card outlines the minimum elements needed from all 3 areas required to code specific E/M levels, and shows that a single word or phrase may be the difference in clarifying a higher level of care provided.
Keep an eye out for our follow-up posts. We’ll focus on individual sections of the chart (history, physical examination, MDM), specific diagnoses and special situations that require extra care when documenting.
- Howell J, Chisholm C, Clark A, Spillane L. Emergency medicine resident documentation: results of the 1999 american board of emergency medicine in-training examination survey. Acad Emerg Med. 2000;7(10):1135-1138. [PubMed]
- Pines J, Braithwaite S. Documentation and coding education in emergency medicine residency programs: a national survey of residents and program directors. Cal J Emerg Med. 2004;5(1):3-8. [PubMed]
- Dawson B, Carter K, Brewer K, Lawson L. Chart smart: a need for documentation and billing education among emergency medicine residents? West J Emerg Med. 2010;11(2):116-119. [PubMed]
- Ardolic B, Weizberg M, Cambria B, et al. 362: Documentation and Coding Skills: Is There Adequate training in Emergency Medicine Residency? Ann Emerg Med. 2006;48(4):108.
- Heiner J, Dunbar J, Harrison T, Kang C. 426: Current Emergency Medicine Residency Education of Documentation, Coding, and Reimbursement: Fitting the Bill? Ann Emerg Med. 2010;56(3):137-138.
- Takacs M, Stilley J. 169: Billing and Coding Shift for Emergency Medicine Residents: A Win-Win-Win Proposition. Ann Emerg Med. 2015;66(4):60.
- Carter K, Dawson B, Brewer K, Lawson L. RVU ready? Preparing emergency medicine resident physicians in documentation for an incentive-based work environment. Acad Emerg Med. 2009;16(5):423-428.
- Evaluation and Management Services Guidelines. Dept of Health & Human Services: Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. https://www.cms.gov/Outreach-and-Education/Medicare-Learning-Network-MLN/MLNProducts/Downloads/eval-mgmt-serv-guide-ICN006764.pdf. Published August 2015. Accessed July 24, 2016.