RSSAll Entries in the "Questions from the Mailbox" Category

Q&A: Identifying the principal diagnosis

Do you have a CDI-related question? Leave us a comment below.

Do you have a CDI-related question? Leave us a comment below.

Q: A patient came to the emergency department with shortness of breath.  The admitting diagnosis was possible acute coronary syndrome (ACS) due to shortness of breath (SOB) and elevated troponin levels. The ACS was ruled out. Elevated troponin levels were assumed to be due to chronic renal failure (CRF), and no reason was given for SOB. Before discharge, the patient was noted with an elevated temperature and found to have a urinary tract infection (UTI). All treatment was directed at the UTI, and the doctor noted the discharge diagnosis as the UTI. What would be the principal diagnosis in this case?

A: Without knowing all the specifics, and reading how it was presented, I would say the UTI could not be taken as the principal diagnosis. For the UTI to be the principal diagnosis, we would need to query for two pieces of information.

  1. The first issue would be whether or not the UTI was present on admission. From this description, it does not was appear to have been not present on admission, but the symptoms appeared before discharge.
  2. The second concern would be to determine whether the UTI was somehow linked to the patient’s presenting symptoms. A UTI and SOB is a difficult connection to make.

If we eliminate the UTI as a choice, even if the majority of treatment was directed towards to the UTI, we have little to work with. I would query for the probable or likely cause of the SOB. If the provider answers with a definitive diagnosis then this would be your principal diagnosis. If not, the symptom of SOB would be your principal diagnosis.

The bigger concern with this patient might be that the wrong status was assigned. This patient most likely should have remained outpatient and placed in observation status until a more definitive diagnosis could be found warranting an inpatient admission.

Editor’s Note: Laurie L. Prescott, RN, MSN, CCDS, CDIP, AHIMA Approved ICD-10-CM/PCS Trainer, and CDI Education Specialist at HCPro in Danvers, Massachusetts, answered this question. Contact her For information regarding CDI Boot Camps


Q&A: Coding an excisional debridement

Ask your question by responding in the comment section.

Ask your question by responding in the comment section.

Q: Where can I go to find out if the word “excisional” must be written by the doctor to code an excisional debridement?

A: Many professional coders will say that the physician must include the  word excisional in order to assign a code for excisional debridement.. I always taught students to use this word as well. So let’s start our investigation as to where this rule came from by taking a look at the Official Guidelines of Coding and Reporting. If there isn’t any direction here (and in this case, there isn’t) we’d turn to the instructions in the alphabetic and tabular index of the code set. Actually, we should really start with the index, as these guidelines need to be applied first when assigning a code..

At code 86.22, excisional debridement of a wound, infection or burn, states “for removal by excision of: devitalized tissue, necrosis, and slough.” No other terms or synonyms are used to describe how the tissue was removed, except for excision. So physicians need to use that word specifically.

Now if you are debating this with a surgeon, he or she will have little desire to understand the inner workings of the code book. However, a number of AHA Coding Clinics offer guidance.

Specifically, AHA Coding Clinic for ICD-9-CM, First Quarter, 2013, states that the requirements in the index were intended to “encourage improved documentation…as to the type of debridement performed.” It includes an example of a patient with a traumatic open wound, stating that clinically an excisional debridement may not be clinically performed and that in many cases a nonexcisional debridement may be needed to clear the problematic area.

“Clear and concise documentation is needed,” Coding Clinic states. “It is critical that hospitals work with their providers to ensure that the documentation used to support excisional debridement clearly describes the procedure.”

Editor’s Note: The ACDIS Forms & Tools Library also includes sample query forms. For more information regarding this topic see these additional articles:

© Copyright 1984-2014, American Hospital Association (“AHA”), Chicago, Illinois. Reproduced with permission. No portion of this publication may be copied without the express, written consent of AHA.

CDI Boot Camp Instructor Laurie Prescott, RN, MSN, CCDS, CDIP, AHIMA Approved ICD-10-CM/PCS Trainer, answered this question. Contact her at For information regarding CDI Boot Camps offered by HCPro visit

Q&A: What are the rules for using information on ambulance forms or trip tickets?

Have a question that is troubling you and your team? Ask us!

Have a question that is troubling you and your team? Ask us! Leave your question in the comments section below.

Q: Can CDI programs use the information on ambulance forms or trip tickets to abstract from if the information is pulled into or reiterated in the ED or H&P documentation? Our staff doesn’t want to miss criteria that would diminish our ability to substantiate the true severity of illness of some patients, but I have been informed that coders are not allowed to code from ambulance papers or information.

A: There are a few issues to consider here. First, can you code from EMT documentation, such as trip sheets?  No. Although these documents are often included in the health record, these documents are not “owned” by the hospital. They are usually classified as external correspondence. If the claim is selected for complex review, the EMT trip sheet cannot be released. As such, it can’t be used to support code assignment.

There is one caveat to this statement. In ICD-10-CM, when implemented, the code for Glasgow coma requires a character that indicates when the assessment was made, which can include those made by an EMT. Coding Clinic from 1st Quarter 2014 states:

“. . . If the EMT documents the patient’s initial GCS core in the field, can the EMT’s documentation be used?  Coders are concerned there is no official advice or guideline that allows the use of nonphysician documentation for Glasgow coma scores. . . “The response was, “It would be appropriate to use the pre-hospital report containing the EMT’s documentation and other nonphysician documentation to determine the Glasgow coma score.”

Second, there could be an issue with how the provider is reiterating the EMT findings in the health record. The provider is expected to provide a history of present illness as part of the history and physical. However, conditions not related to the current episode of care should not be reported. The documentation by the provider needs to clearly show the conditions that exist at the time of admission, rather than just listing an overall history.

Sometimes a coder’s perspective is different than a clinician’s regarding what they define as a history of a condition. Often, if a provider fails to carry a diagnosis throughout the health record, and doesn’t include it in the discharge summary, it may not be perceived as reportable by a coder.  Many coders begin the coding process with the discharge summary, because it is the final word of the attending provider. However, it is important to note that Coding Clinic 1st Qtr. 2014 states “documentation is not limited to the face sheet, discharge summary, progress note, history and physical, or other report designed to capture diagnostic information. This advice only refers to inpatient coding.”

Just because the provider doesn’t mention a diagnosis more than once does not mean it isn’t reportable. Oftentimes, the provider’s focus changes daily, so they may not feel the need to summarize conditions that are no longer a focus of their efforts. If there is a disagreement between CDI and coding, it is best to clarify with the provider, assuming the totality of health record supports the condition as reportable.

If the provider only mentions the condition(s) in the history and physical, it might be helpful to query for the status of the condition to see if it should be reported. For example, if the provider, in their history and physical, documents “early clinical sepsis” and it is never documented again, be sure there are clinical indicators that support it as a reportable diagnosis. If there are clinical indicators to support it as a reportable condition than your query may be as follows:

Please clarify the status of the condition “early clinical sepsis” as documented in the H&P in this patient who presented with (give specific s/sx) and was treated  with (give specifics) or had the following diagnostics (give specifics), etc. Was the “early clinical sepsis”

  • Confirmed and ongoing
  • Confirmed and resolved
  • Ruled out
  • Without clinical significance
  • Unable to determine
  • Other:                                                                                                                               

Also note, the multiple choice format would only work well if your organization maintains the query as part of the health record so it would need to be validated by the provider. If the provider responds, by confirming the diagnosis (either ongoing or resolved), it would be reportable. If the provider responds with any other choice, it would not be reportable.

Keep in mind that you can use clinical indicators obtained from EMT documentation to query the provider if there appears to be an undocumented, reportable condition relevant to the current episode of care, if the current provider documentation doesn’t support code assignment.

Editor’s Note: Cheryl Ericson, MS, RN, CCDS, CDIP, AHIMA Approved ICD-10-CM/PCS Trainer, Associate Director for Education at ACDIS and CDI Education Director at HCPro in Danvers, Mass, contributed to this post.

Q&A: Is ‘backward mapping’ from ICD-10-CM/PCS to ICD-9-CM appropriate?

Don't get overwhelmed! Just ask us for help! Leave your question in the comments section below.

Don’t get overwhelmed! Just ask us for help! Leave your question in the comments section below.

Q: Our facility is considering having our coders and CDI specialists “go–live” with ICD-10-CM/PCS on July 1, for practice to help off-set the impact of ICD-10. The system will would then code backwards into ICD-9-CM for billing. Is this “backward mapping” method appropriate?

A: The biggest issue is how your ICD-10-CM/PCS coding will be “translated” into ICD-9-CM for claims processing until CMS accepts ICD-10-CM/PCS codes to process claims. If you the system is coding backward code, the resulting code will likely be based on GEMs, which CMS discourages.

CMS specifically states the GEMS are not for coding purposes, but rather to help build coding databases. Backward mapping—going from an ICD-10-CM/PCS code to an ICD-9-CM code—could be problematic, and could result in assigning many nonspecific codes, which may have reimbursement ramifications. The GEM mappings were not intended to be used for coding purposes, but rather to help build coding databases.

Many codes have a “one to many” ratio, resulting in either a nonspecific code or, in some cases, a “no map” option. Ideally, we would like to think if we convert documentation to ICD-10-CM/PCS that it would automatically backward map to the correct ICD-9-CM code, but it may not.

For example, if the documentation states “severe persistent intrinsic asthma,” the ICD-10-CM assigned code would be to J45.50 (severe persistent asthma, uncomplicated), because the term “intrinsic” in ICD-10-CM/PCS is now an included term not previously factored into category selection in ICD-9-CM. So, if you backwards map the code J45.50, it will translate to 493.00 or 493.10 in ICD-9-CM.

Unfortunately, this does not translate to a direct match: 493.00 is for extrinsic asthma and 493.10 is for intrinsic asthma. The ICD-10-CM/PCS code translates to two possible ICD-9-CM codes, and only one can be chosen. But it has to backward map to both because the code for severe persistent asthma does not identify extrinsic or intrinsic in ICD-9-CM.

Most organizations are dual-coding–coding in both ICD-9-CM so their claims can be reimbursed appropriately and in ICD-10-CM/PCS so they can practice the new code set and identify improvement opportunities. However, not all organizations have software that can “hold” both code sets simultaneously. If your software allows you to hold both codes, even though it is time consuming, the best suggestion is to native code in both ICD-9-CM and ICD-10-CM/PCS. If you rely merely on the backwards mapping, it may not achieve the desired result. The systems are not identical, and very few codes have exact maps.

Editor’s Note: Cheryl Ericson, MS, RN, CCDS, CDIP, AHIMA Approved ICD-10-CM/PCS Trainer, Associate Director for Education at ACDIS and CDI Education Director at HCPro in Danvers, Mass. and Shannon E. McCall, RHIA, CCS, CCS-P, CPC, CPC-I, CEMC, CCDS Director of HIM and Coding at HCPro in Danvers, Mass. contributed to this response.

Q&A: Query for biventricular heart failure

Don't get overwhelmed! Just ask for help!

Don’t get overwhelmed! Just ask for help!

Q: Our cardiologists like to document “biventricular heart failure.” Is a query needed to clarify systolic and/or diastolic?

A: A query should be issued for the chronicity and type of heart failure when the physician states only “biventricular heart failure.” Biventricular represents that both ventricles have mechanical problems, but it doesn’t specify which phase of the cardiac cycle (systole or diastole) is encountering a pumping/filling issue.

If you have access to an encoder and type in “biventricular heart failure” you will receive prompts to add in participating factors, and asked to choose what type of heart failure (systolic, diastolic, combined, etc). If you pick “unspecified,” you end up with code “428.0 Congestive heart failure, unspecified.”

Editor’s Note: Vicki Sullivan Davis is CDI manager at Cone Health System at Alamance Regional in Burlington, North Carolina, and past-speaker at ACDIS National Conference. Contact her at

Q&A: Assessing malnutrition diagnoses

Ask your CDI question in the comment section.

Ask your CDI question in the comment section.

Q: If a is patient admitted with malnutrition and the physician documented the patient to be malnourished from mild to severe, would the CDI team use DRG 641, Severe Malnutrition as a working DRG or should we query the physician to clarify the severity or type of malnutrition.

A: DRG 641, Severe Malnutrition would require use of ICD-9-CM code 261, Nutritional Marasmus, which is a high-risk diagnosis vulnerable to denial. The same is true for ICD-9-CM code 260, Kwashiorkor. These conditions describe a very specific type of severe malnutrition typically found in third-world countries and doesn’t typically exist in the U.S.

Even if it wasn’t a vulnerable diagnosis the difference between mild and severe malnutrition constitutes the difference between a CC and an MCC designation. So first look to see what clinical indicators and treatment support were documented in the record. In my opinion, the treatment is often what separates mild nutrition from severe malnutrition. If the clinical indicators and treatment support severe protein calorie malnutrition (ICD-9-CM code 262), I would query the provider to clarify their documentation as to the type.

The following are some additional articles that might help shed a little more light on these conditions and their relative controversy over the years: