review of systems medical-chart-canstockphoto13003631-ros

Editor’s Note (Jan 13, 2023): 

The new AMA CPT 2023 Documentation Guidelines have been published and the prior Review of Systems section is no longer incorporated into the billing and coding guidelines. See the ACEP FAQ page on the 2023 Emergency Department Evaluation and Management (E/M) Guidelines.

The Review of Systems (ROS) was the most frustrating aspect of charting as an intern. Documenting at least 10 elements from systems seemingly unrelated to the chief complaint took as long as a physical exam and was much harder to remember. For efficiency, many of us include any pertinent positives and negatives in the history of present illness (HPI) and use an ROS caveat such as “10/14 Review of Systems completed and is negative except as stated above in HPI (Systems reviewed: Const, Eyes, ENT, Resp, CV, GI, GU, MSK, Skin, Neuro)” or “A complete Review of Systems was obtained and is negative except as stated in HPI.

This obviates documenting 10 or more separate systems, but what if you’re at a site where the coders won’t accept a blanket phrase? Should you keep your lengthy HPI and then chart the same info again? Or can we devise a ROS that is at a minimum not redundant, and perhaps even helpful?

CMS Definition & Requirements

The ROS is “an inventory of body systems obtained through a series of questions seeking to identify signs and/or symptoms which the patient may be experiencing or has experienced”. CMS recognizes the following organ systems* for ROS (1995 E/M Documentation Guidelines, PDF):

  1. Constitutional
  2. Eyes
  3. Ears, Nose, Mouth, Throat
  4. Cardiovascular
  5. Respiratory
  6. Gastrointestinal
  7. Genitourinary
  8. Musculoskeletal
  9. Integumentary (skin and/or breast)
  10. Neurological
  11. Psychiatric
  12. Endocrine
  13. Hematologic/Lymphatic
  14. Allergic/Immunologic

*Organ systems: A complete ROS must document systems, not regions of the body. This is an important distinction, e.g. Eyes and ENMT count separately, but Head and HEENT don’t count.

You can document 4 types of ROS, depending on how many of the possible 14 systems are reviewed:

E/M LevelROS TypeSystems Reviewed
II/IIIProblem Pertinent1

Work Smarter, Not Harder: Resuscitating ROS

How do you make this section useful?

  • Offload pertinent positives and negatives from the HPI into ROS.
  • Organize your history with HPI first, then ROS, and PFSH last (mimicking how CMS arranges the E/M guidelines) so you can document a concise HPI statement and move directly to ROS. This will make your charting efficient, yet effective and billable.
  • Use the ROS as a cognitive backstop. As a junior resident documenting ROS, I often realized I had forgotten certain history questions, did not have enough information to exclude an item on my differential, or that something the patient said did not fit with the rest of the picture, prompting me to re-evaluate my differential.
  • Have a quick, rehearsed set of ROS questions to cover any systems not included in the history. For example: Fevers? Vision/hearing changes? Sore throat? Chest pain? Shortness of breath? Vomiting or diarrhea? Painful urination? Rashes? Joint pain or swelling? Numbness or tingling? Changes in mood? Heat or cold intolerance? Bleeding or bruising? Allergic reactions? Tailor this question set to your practice setting and specific patients.

Final Tips

  • One item– positive, negative, or normal– will suffice for each system.
  • If you use dot phrases or macros, have a 2-4 system ROS for most patients and a complete ROS for patients that will reach E/M level 5. Consider also having a separate pediatric ROS.
  • Always document at least 2 systems to prevent downcoding to an E/M level 2-3.
  • ROS can be obtained by ancillary staff or by patient questionnaire, as long as the physician reviews and discusses any pertinent positives or negatives with the patient. Be sure to notate this in your documentation: “I have reviewed the ROS questionnaire and discussed the pertinent positives and negatives with the patient.” Also, initial any physical forms, e.g. patient questionnaires, which you have reviewed.
  • A complete ROS can be a hybrid, listing pertinent positives and negatives by system, and then a notation indicating “All other systems are negative.”
  • Both caveats used in the introduction are valid examples per CMS. If you give a number of systems in your caveat, you must list that number of systems afterwards, so the second version is more straightforward.
Bjorn Watsjold, MD

Bjorn Watsjold, MD

Emergency Medicine Chief Resident
Division of Emergency Medicine
University of Washington
Bjorn Watsjold, MD

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