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TBT: The role of CDI specialists in serving long-term care facilities

CDI JournalEditor’s Note: In social media memes Throw-back Thursday generally means sharing an old high school photo, something you wish had been left unpublished–like your 80s bouffant or 70s bell bottoms. We thought we’d pick up on the theme and occasionally go back into our CDI archives to highlight some salient CDI tid-bit. This week’s installment comes from the July 2011 edition of the CDI Journal. 

When Jennifer Love, RN, BA, CCDS, accepted a CDI position Kindred Healthcare, one of the nation’s largest long-term acute care (LTAC) providers, she found a brandnew opportunity. As its name implies, LTACs provide care for patients with serious (acute) medical needs over a long period of time, usually between 20 and 30 days. Most CDI specialists work in short-term acute care (STAC) facilities. So Love saw the LTAC opening as a chance to broaden her CDI horizons.

“It is exciting to see CDI expand out like this,” she says. “I feel like I dove into the future.”

The payment system is essentially the same as that of STAC facilities—LTACs use ICD-9 codes and MS-DRGs for Medicare patients, for example. But whereas STACs look to reduce a patient’s geometric length of stay (GLOS), an LTAC patient is expected to require a longer treatment period.

LTACs treat a very specific type of patient, says Love. Patients can be morbidly obese, suffer from bed sores and acute renal failure, and have often undergone tracheostomies.

The top DRGs at Love’s facilities include:

  • 207: respiratory system diagnosis with ventilator support 96+ hours
  • 189: pulmonary edema and respiratory failure
  • 592 and 593: skin ulcers with CC/MCC
  •  870 and 871: septicemia or severe sepsis with mechanical ventilation 96+ hours; and with MCC

If a patient leaves the LTAC sooner (or longer) than expected, a number of questions need to be asked and answered, says Becky Slagell, BA, MHA, RHIT, CPHQ, regional senior director of case management for the Central Region Long-Term Acute Hospital Division at Kindred Healthcare.

“We need to ask ourselves why that patient was discharged earlier than patients with similar concerns. Was [he/ she] truly safe for discharge? Was [he/she] able to go home earlier than normally expected for that type of patient? Did [he/she] transfer back to a STAC? If so, why?” Slagell says.

“There shouldn’t be a high rate of COPD in a LTAC setting,” Slagell says. “That is a chronic condition that by itself does not require our level of care. When a CDI specialist sees that, they’ll look further in the record and see what the situation is. Is there an acute exacerbation of the COPD such as aspiration pneumonia or respiratory failure?”

This complicated level of care makes the role of the CDI specialist very important for this particular setting, says Slagell.

Book Excerpt: Management measurement tasks

Clinical Documentation Improvement Specialist's HandbookComplex metrics regarding physician response rates and staff productivity help the CDI manager quantify the CDI program benefits to facility administrators and to CDI program staff when presented properly. The manager helps communicate facility priorities to his or her team and to illustrate the needs of the CDI department to hospital administrators. Furthermore, the manager must maintain awareness of any changes in government regulations and industry guidance. Changes in the larger industry will affect the CDI team’s productivity, and any metric must be discussed within the context of these changes.

The manager should review not only the percentage of charts examined by the team, but also the number and type of queries needed each month. It is important to document the outcomes of these reviews. The aggregate data can then be used for process improvement and to support corporate compliance activities. The following is a list of items to review routinely and share with the compliance committee and administration when relevant.

  • Trends in types of queries: one condition being queried routinely (e.g., a type/phase of congestive heart failure [CHF])
  • Trends by physicians: multiple queries to the same physician regarding the same condition (e.g.,  a physician continuing to use the term urosepsis after repeated queries and communication as to the need for further specificity)
  • Trends by individual CDI specialists  (e.g., a CDI specialist continuously querying for specification that is already documented in the chart)

A change in ICD-9-CM Official Guidelines for Coding and Reporting may affect the query percentage for a period of time. A good example is the increased documentation specificity required for heart failure when coding guidelines were revised and reindexed to allow for greater specificity in reporting the phase and specific type of heart disease. Prior to the implementation of MS-DRG, it was only necessary for the physician to document “heart failure” or “CHF.” Both terms were considered CCs.

If one looks back far enough, many CDI teams’ data show a surge in queries for the period of time immediately prior to and following the implementation of the MS-DRG system.

In summary, team performance cannot be determined solely through measurement of query volume. Many factors influence this indicator and it should not be used to determine a program’s effectiveness, but rather should be used as an indicator of opportunities for improvement (e.g., physician education, form revision) or performance improvement over time.

Editor’s Note: This excerpt comes from The Clinical Documentation Improvement Specialist’s Handbook, Second Edition by Marion Kruse, MBA, RN and Heather Taillon, RHIA, CCDS.

2014 CDI Salary Survey open: Participate. Get results

How much do you make as a CDI Specialist? Let us know!

How much do you make as a CDI Specialist? Let us know!

When ACDIS put out the call for participation in its 2014 CDI Salary Survey last week more than 500 people responded. We need you to take a few minutes to complete the survey, too. Why? Because these surveys provide us with a snapshot view of how changes in the profession affect how you get paid for the work you do. And, you can use the results to make the case for changes in your own compensation! It’s true. We’ve heard from a number of ACDIS members who’ve analyzed the data against their own circumstances and got the compensation they deserved.

Last year about 25% of respondents said they earned $60,000–$69,999 annually; but the number of individuals earning $50,000-$59,999 decreased by 4% and the number of those earning $70,000-$79,999 increased by about 4%.

How have salary rates changes since last year’s survey? You tell us! Please complete the 2014 CDI Specialist’s Salary Benchmarking Survey. We will share the results in a special report later this year.

Book Excerpt: The role of the CDI specialist

Clinical Documentation Improvement Specialist's HandbookAn average rule of thumb is for a CDI program to employ one CDI specialist for every 1,250 to 1,500 discharges per year. Consider higher staff ratios for programs that expect CDI specialists to perform multiple functions (core measures review, utilization management, etc.) and a lower ratio for programs that perform condition clarifications only. Other considerations include the amount of vacation time staff have available; programs that hired tenured CDI staff may have to adjust for higher weeks of vacation availability. As program expectations change, review staffing requirements to ensure that existing staff can accomplish the new goals with the resources available.

In general, a dedicated CDI specialist should have an average daily census of 12-15 new patients and between five and 10 established and follow-up cases. This census will allow for appropriate query follow-up and daily reconciliation of discharged cases. Therefore, the decision of how many new staff members to hire can be made by dividing the average daily census by 15. CDI leaders can further quantify that number by obtaining the average daily admission numbers.

Another variable to consider is if the CDI specialist is allowed to determine at what point they stop reviewing a case or if they are required to re-review the case periodically until discharge. This can also have an impact on the number of cases per CDI staff member.

Keep in mind that the CDI staff generally work Monday through Friday so their actual daily census will be higher, especially on Mondays. Increasingly, however, facilities appear willing to adopt a more flexible schedule. These schedules may include a rotating day of the weekend and/or different staggered shifts to make CDI specialists more available to the medical staff.

Editor’s Note: This excerpt comes from The Clinical Documentation Improvement Specialist’s Handbook, Second Edition by Marion Kruse, MBA, RN and Heather Taillon, RHIA, CCDS.
For additional information regarding productivity see the following articles:

Q&A: How to handle overwhelming productivity concerns

Ask your question by leaving a comment below.

Ask your question by leaving a comment below.

Q: I am the only CDI specialist in our 150-bed facility. I have held the position for three years, and am the first one to do so helping to build the position from the ground up. Being the only CDI, I am on several committees, responsible for continual physician education, continuing medical education presentations. I am a constant clinical resource for our inpatient coders, and do all payer reviews everyday which amounts to between 25 and 40 reviews and re-reviews per day.

We have no coding compliance person at this time and I have been asked to review charts for the coders which involve single CC/MCC and/or those that may have a complication as well. My query rate has since dropped and I am being asked why. I feel helpless. Are there standards for CDI productivity for a one woman show?

A:  I have worked in small hospitals for most of my nursing career and as in any institution when you display your value, skills and talents, administrators begin to put more on your plate, at times overloading it. Unfortunately, in a small hospital there are less “plates” at the table and it can be easy to become overwhelmed.

The role of the CDI is an important one, and your organization sees that because they wish to have you involved in so many different endeavors. Your description above reflects the position I held in CDI for approximately four years before my organization decided to further invest in expanding the number of CDIs.

There are many reasons that might lead to a drop in query rate, one being that your physicians are learning. With the initiation of a program, the query rate is often higher and tends to level out as the physicians learn about the needed documentation. This means you have done such a great job that the issues are less, requiring less queries.

On the negative side, if you are feeling rushed to complete reviews the quality of your reviews may have dropped. As you know, it takes time to dig thorough the record to find potential opportunities. If time is an issue, we might not ‘dive’ into the record as deep as we should. Since you are alone, it might be a good time to discuss how to prioritize accounts with your supervisor. Are there certain accounts that you may be able to pass over?

I love that you review all payers but when you are working by yourself, this may not always be a reasonable option. Do you review every patient every day? How do you decide how often to review or when you can stop the concurrent review process on a specific account? This would be a great discussion to have with your manager or leadership team.

Are you seeing a drop in other measures applied to your program? Is there a rise in retrospective queries? This would demonstrate that perhaps you are not catching such query opportunities up front. If there is no rise in the retrospective query rate it might mean that you a capturing query opportunity quite well. How is the physician response rate? CC- MCC capture rate? CMI? Are your other measures seeing a decline as well?

As for performing second level reviews for the coders, perhaps they could put a system in place in which another coder first looks at the record before it hits your desk, especially for those records in which there is only one CC or MCC. This might decrease the number of reviews you are required to do in these instances.

Take a look at the 2014 CDI Productivity Survey published by ACDIS as well as other suggestions from the Association. This might give you some comparison, or offer tools that you can use when speaking to your manager. I understand creating new positions especially in smaller hospitals is next to impossible but the return on investment for CDI expansion is a positive one.

CDI practice can encompass a large variety of organizational needs from medical necessity to quality, core measures etc. It is important to not cast such a wide net that the person(s) performing the task cannot succeed. Also, if you are a member the CDI Talk list-serve is a perfect opportunity to “ask around” and see what others are being asked to do and with what resources.

I suggest after a little research you sit down with your management team and discuss what is the expected focus of your program? What is the mission and goals? Review your assigned responsibilities and ask assistance in prioritization of these tasks or perhaps identify others that could support you.

You should also consider the impact of ICD-10 on your organization. We expect coder productivity to drop up to 60% primarily due to PCS coding. The more investment up front in CDI, both to provide teaching and concurrent chart review, could help to ameliorate the impact of productivity drop. This is why many organizations (big and small) are increasing their numbers in the CDI department.

There were times when I felt quite overwhelmed too. It is difficult to be the sole CDI, as no one really understands what you do and why. And it is easy for all concerned to think adding just one more duty to the list won’t hurt. I had an excellent mentor when I started in nursing management several years ago. She taught me that when I was feeling overwhelmed and was handed a new responsibility, to respond “I am more than happy to take this on, can we discuss what task or responsibility I might be able to give up so that I might have the time to lend my skills and focus to this issue.” Smile when you say it, I was always amazed at how well it worked!

Celebrate National Nurses Week: Free webinar

Florence Nightengale says Happy National Nursing Week!

Florence Nightengale says Happy National Nursing Week!

National Nurses Week is celebrated annually from May 6, also known as National Nurses Day, through May 12, the birthday of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. This year’s theme is “Nurses Leading the Way,” a theme ACDIS can certainly support. So many of our own members hail from nursing backgrounds, and so many of you lead the way to ensure that appropriate clinical information gets included in the medical record. You “lead the way” in ensuring physicians understand how their documentation gets coded. You “lead the way” in helping coders get the information they need. You “lead the way” in ensuring that accurate data leads to appropriate care outcomes.

As the American Nurses Association states on its website, “every day, nurses step forward embracing new technologies, resolving emerging issues, and accepting ever-changing roles in their profession. They lead the way for their patients, colleagues, organizations, and the healthcare industry as a whole.” We wholeheartedly endorse this statement and embrace it as representative of our own members as well, regardless of whether they hail from nursing or coding backgrounds.

Although we converge on Vegas this week for our own education and networking conference we pause for a moment to recognize Nurses Week and the underlying reason for a professional career in healthcare–caring for one another.

If you are not able to join us for the 7th Annual Conference, consider listening in to the AHA’s free webinar “Transforming Health Care Through Nursing Leadership,” on Wednesday, May 7, at 1 p.m. Eastern. Healthcare is constantly changing and evolving. Today, more than ever, nurses are stepping out of their comfort zones and becoming active contributors and innovators in the healthcare system. As CDI professionals you know that to be just as true for you as it is for nursing professionals. Celebrate your endeavors and support the nurses around you this week.

Primer for new CDI staff: Take it easy on yourself

Enterprising CDI specialist should consider working across facilities to develop standard policies and procedures.

Five tips for new CDI–but the number one lesson is to take your time and don’t be too hard on yourself about what you may not know yet.

As one who at times has been responsible for the care and feeding of new CDI specialists, I think it’s time for me to share my views on newbies.

Those of us who’ve come from the nursing ranks, especially those of us who’ve been nurses a long time, are well-familiar with the concept, nurses eat their young. It derives from the tendency of some older nurses to grind the heart and soul out of younger nurses. Greater awareness of the practice has, I think, led to kinder, gentler orientation processes, but many older nurses who go into CDI still have the mindset that they have to be perfect or someone’s going to tear into them. So here’s a few words of advice for new CDI specialists:

1.  Nobody dies in this job. I have to admit in the spirit of transparency, that having once shared this concept with a certain new CDI specialist, I received a phone call one day shortly thereafter. “You lied to me.”  Now, talk about putting my heart in my throat! What could I have possibly lied about? “You said nobody dies in this job. I went out to review this patient and she died.” Okay, well, yes, patients do die every day despite our hospital’s and our physicians’ best efforts. But they do not die because of anything the CDI specialist did or did not do. Unlike bedside nursing (and ICU nursing, where I came from)–where a wrong medication or forgotten procedure could actually be a life-or-death event–mistakes in CDI don’t actually impact lives. “Nobody dies in this job” is meant simply to take the pressure off those of us who come from the nursing perfection. Did I say perfection? Of course I meant profession.

2.  Orientation never ends. Yes, your manager is going to give you an orientation schedule that has a start date and an end date, because they have to.  But it’s really not like the orientation I experienced when I was a new nurse where I showed up for work one night and saw my name no longer attached to my preceptor. When I asked, I was told, “You’ve been here eight weeks. You’re off orientation.” As a new CDI specialist you have a right to expect regular bidirectional feedback so that the transition to independent practice is seamless and appropriate. Orientation is a fluid process, and while it’s not unreasonable or unexpected to have goals and target dates, every CDI specialist is unique and orientation needs will differ. If you feel like you’re not getting what you need, speak up. I tell new CDI specialists and prospective CDI professionals that regardless of their previous healthcare background, this will be the toughest learning curve they’ve ever encountered. And that’s not something that can be overcome on a fixed schedule.

3.  Speed kills. This is one of those “do as I say, not as I do” moments. My work pace is extremely fast, but I do on occasion miss things because I work so quickly. In the beginning, you are probably going to panic about your productivity. You may have been told you must complete X number of initial reviews and X number of followups daily. I’m not here to tell you to ignore your manager, but if you are working methodically and paying attention to how you approach cases, you will get faster. You will learn what to look for and what information probably won’t make a difference. If you frequently find yourself spending an hour on one case, consider whether you’re getting a return on that investment of your time, or whether you might have the same results if you’d cut it down to 15 minutes. If you just can’t seem to tear yourself away and your manager is imploding, then take your little smartphone and set your timer for 15 minutes at the start of each case. When the timer goes off, walk away. By not getting to the next case, you may be missing an opportunity on another chart that didn’t get opened.

4.  It’s okay not to know it all. You may finish your formal orientation process as a whiz in cardiovascular CDI, because you come from a cardiovascular background, you had a cardiovascular CDI whiz for a preceptor, and you saw a wide variety of cardiovascular conditions and complications as part of your orientation process. But the vacancy in the department for which you were hired was on the gynecology floor, where you have zero experience. Fear not. You can still function. Honest. You have learned basic principles that apply no matter where you are assigned, and you will learn, exponentially, as you gain experience. You will learn by making mistakes, and that’s okay. (See #1 above.) The hallmark of a good CDI is recognition that you don’t know everything, having a willingness to learn, and inquisitiveness–you don’t wait for someone to teach you, but go seek out information yourself. As I used to say when I precepted staff nurses at the bedside, the day you think you know it all is the day you need to hang it up. So hang in there, and eventually you will feel more comfortable. The day will soon come when you will likely be a CDI resource, a person your colleagues seek out when they have questions.

5.  Seek the next level. You can go to Boot Camp or have a good orientation or take a coding class, and you can learn to function at a basic level, but if you want to advance beyond querying for acute systolic heart failure, you’re going to have to take the initiative and learn. Read, read, read. Network, network, network. Talk to your colleagues. Read and post on ACDIS’s CDI Talk.  Somehow, realizing that there’s always new information out there makes the knowledge that you don’t have all that information easier to accept.

So take it easy on yourself!  You worked hard to get into CDI and you deserve to give yourself a break.

Two important announcements regarding the CCDS exam

CCDS certification discussed during latest Quarterly Membership Call

CCDS certification.

Deadline for CCDS exam at ACDIS conference in Las Vegas
Friday, April 11
is the deadline to apply for the Certified Clinical Documentation Specialist (CCDS) exam administered at the ACDIS conference in Las Vegas, Friday, May 9. You must register for this exam in advance. Late arrivals or walk-ins will not be admitted to the exam room.

To apply, download the application, complete it and return it to Penny Richards by one of the contact methods listed on the application. Be sure to mark the top of the application “LAS VEGAS EXAM.”

Contact ACDIS Member Services Specialist Penny Richards, for additional information.

ICD-10 exam update delayed to January 1, 2015
As previously announced, the ACDIS Certified Clinical Documentation Specialist (CCDS) exam will be changing to reflect coding guidelines under ICD-10-CM/PCS. After consideration, the CCDS Exam Committee decided to shift the effective date of the exam change to January 1, 2015. The Committee believes it is appropriate to delay exam changes until the ICD-10-CM/PCS system is in use and CDI professionals have had a chance to work in it for a few months.

The current ICD-9-CM version of the exam will remain in place for the remainder of this calendar year. The CCDS Exam Study Guide will be available at the same time the new exam takes effect and is otherwise applicable for anyone studying to sit for the exam through December.

Contact ACDIS Member Services Specialist Penny Richards with questions.

Full/part-time coding instructors sought

Do you have what it takes to join the HCPro team of coding and documentation improvement Boot Camps? Let's see a show of hands!

Do you have what it takes to join the HCPro team of coding and documentation improvement Boot Camps? Let’s see a show of hands!

HCPro seeks coding education specialists to serve as instructors for ICD-10-related boot camps. Enjoying teaching and education are a must, as are excellent verbal and written communication skills. As one of the most successful coding programs in the U.S., our instructors are considered some of the best in the industry. HCPro only seeks the most experienced within the field of coding education to add as team members.

Coding instructors are home-based; full-time positions require approximately 50% travel and part-time adjunct positions require at least 4-6 weeks travel per year. All successful candidates must be dynamic public speakers, have extensive expertise in ICD-9-CM coding, have significant inpatient coding experience, and have a minimum of CCS certification. Candidates who hold a bachelor’s degree, are AHIMA-approved ICD-10-CM/PCS trainers, advanced degrees (RHIT, RHIA), and have significant adult education experience are preferred.

Send resume and cover letter to Rebecca Hendren via email at

Looking for CCDS continuing education credits? Use your ACDIS membership

CCDS certification discussed during latest Quarterly Membership Call

ACDIS offers multiple ways to maintain CCDS CE credits.

We recently received an inquiry from an ACDIS member who, unfortunately, was not able to attend this year’s ACDIS National Conference and came up short on her needed Certified Clinical Documentation Specialist (CCDS) continuing education (CE) credits.

There are a number of ways to obtain CE. (For complete information about re-certification please visit the webpages dedicated to the topic on the ACDIS website.) Many ACDIS local chapter events offer CCDS credits and most are extremely reasonably priced between $25-$45 depending on whether you belong to the chapter or not.

Additionally, some of the CE courses you’ve already taken through your facility or related association (AHIMA, ANCC, ACMA) may qualify for CCDS CE too. (There is a list on the re-certification tab of what is acceptable. If you have any questions, contact ACDIS Membership Services Director Penny Richards at

In addition, your ACDIS membership provides up to eight CE credits per year should you choose to take advantage of them. The Quarterly Conference Calls each offer one CE and the quarterly CDI Journal also offers one CE for each issue.

Members are notified of the date and time for the live conference calls but you need not listen live to obtain the CE; simply visit the ACDIS site, look for the conference call tab on the left navigation bar, listen to the streaming audio, and take the related survey. A certificate will be mailed to you once you complete the survey.

Similarly, ACDIS members can read the CDI Journal and take the short, 15-question content-related quiz, and receive CE credits for their efforts. The quiz is typically posted two weeks after the Journal content. Please remember, however, the CDI Journal is a web-based PDF document and members must login to their ACDIS account to access it.