RSSAll Entries in the "Questions from the Mailbox" Category

Q&A: Sleep apnea clarification opportunities

Q: Should I query for chronic respiratory failure if the documentation indicates the patient has sleep apnea with and is being treated with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) at night?

Ask your CDI question in the comment section.

Ask your CDI question in the comment section.

I love where you are going with this question, it demonstrates your critical thinking, one of the most important skills a CDI specialist can have.

First off, let’s think about the definition of respiratory failure and the biological processes which cause it. Respiratory failure can result from an inability to ventilate (take in oxygen, expel carbon dioxide) or an inability for the gas exchange to occur at the cellular level within the lungs.

The Merck Manual describes it as:

“A rise in [partial pressure of carbon dioxide] PaCO2 (hypercapnia) that occurs when the respiratory load can no longer be supported by the strength or activity of the system. The most common causes are acute exacerbations of asthma and [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease] COPD, overdoses of drugs that suppress ventilatory drive, and conditions that cause respiratory muscle weakness (e.g., Guillain-Barré syndrome, myasthenia gravis, botulism)… Treatment varies by condition but often includes mechanical ventilation.”

The manual goes on to describe that the balance between load (resistance to ventilation and neuromuscular competence (the drive to breath, and muscle strength) determines the ability to sustain alveolar ventilation. Sleep disordered breathing is listed as a contributing condition that can disrupt this balance.

If you come from case management experience, you might be aware that for a Medicare patient to qualify for CPAP, a sleep study must be performed that demonstrates need based on the number and length of episodes occurring within the study elapsed time.

If the patient is receiving treatment or monitoring within the hospital stay to address the sleep apnea, a query may be warranted. Make sure the hospital is providing CPAP support at night and review the respiratory therapy notes to show consistency within the record before submitting the query.

If your organization does not have agreed upon diagnostic criteria for chronic respiratory failure work with your CDI team and pulmonologists to define this condition and identify clinical indicators to support query. Discuss with the pulmonologist how sleep apnea and the use of CPAP supports this diagnosis.

When I was reviewing records I always thought of obesity alveolar hypoventilation syndrome (Pickwickian’s Syndrome) as a possible secondary diagnosis where obstructive sleep apnea was listed as a diagnosis. Check the patient’s BMI and if you have morbid obesity, consider whether that condition led to the obstructive sleep apnea. This also provides a CC.

Smart question and this is often a query opportunity that is overlooked.

Editor’s Note: 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: Defining subacute per coding guidelines

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Q: The primary physician documented subacute cerebral infarction and I am wondering whether I should code this to a new cerebral vascular accident (CVA) or not since the term “subacute” doesn’t really fall anywhere.

A: The Official Guidelines for Coding and Reporting offers no definition as to what is considered acute, subacute, or chronic. I have found subacute to mean something in between acute and chronic which is a vague description at best! For questions such as this I refer to the American Hospital Association’s Coding Clinic for ICD-9-CM (ICD-10-CM/PCS)® for assistance.

Coding Clinic, First Quarter 2011, p. 21 states:

Question: How is the diagnosis documented as “subacute deep vein thrombosis (DVT) code? There are index subentries for acute and chronic, but not for subacute?

Answer: Assign code 45.39, acute venous embolism and thrombosis of other specified veins, for a diagnosis of subacute DVT.

Now, this reference does not specifically describe a CVA but does offer guidance that the term subacute is interpreted as being acute. But I would like to see more guidance related to CVA. So let’s look at Coding Clinic, Second Quarter 2013, p. 10

Question: The patient suffered a subacute ischemic right posterior watershed infarct with small focus of subacute hemorrhage. How should this be coded?

Answer: Assign 434.91 Occlusion of Cerebral arteries, cerebral artery occlusion, unspecified with cerebral infarction AND 431- intracerebral hemorrhage, for the description subacute ischemic right posterior parietal watershed infarct with small focus of subacute hemorrhage. In this instance the patient had an ischemic stroke as well as a hemorrhagic stroke.

I understand that although this Coding Clinic is addressing the fact two codes would be assigned due to the fact there was both an ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke it also reinforces that the wording of subacute would apply to the codes for a CVA versus codes for a history of CVA. Coding Clinic offers much guidance when we encounter those “grey” areas of the code set and should be the reference that you seek in such situations.


Q&A: Atelectasis query for secondary diagnosis

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Q: When atelectasis is noted on an ancillary test such as a CT-scan of the abdomen or chest x-ray can nursing documentation of turning, coughing, and deep breathing considered an intervention that qualifies as one of the criteria to meet a secondary diagnosis?

A: In order to answer your question more information surrounding the circumstances of the encounter would be required. Atelectasis is usually considered an integral condition when it occurs following surgery because the turning, coughing, and deep breathing is typically routine protocol for this type of patient.

There are specific guidelines for coding conditions that may be an integral part of a disease process. If the condition is routinely associated with the disease process or procedure and no additional monitoring or treatment is ordered to evaluate the condition then the additional code would not be separately assigned. If the attending provider orders additional monitoring or treatment to evaluate the condition, such as continued x-rays to monitor the progress and resolution of the Atelectasis, it would be a reportable condition. Some other examples of integral conditions would be an “ileus” following bowel surgery, or “pleural effusions” in a patient with congestive heart failure that is not aggressively treated.

Before we assign a code for a secondary diagnoses, we need to ask ourselves, does it meet UHDDS criteria for a secondary diagnoses? The CDI specialist needs to determine if the condition required:

  • Clinical evaluation
  • Therapeutic treatment or a diagnostic procedures
  • An extended length of stay
  • Increased nursing care and/or monitoring
  • Is it supported by at least one clinical indicator

Additionally, consider whether:

  • Other providers would arrive at the same conclusion/make the same diagnosis?
  • The diagnosis integral to another condition?
  • This diagnosis relates to this episode of care?
  • The diagnosis was documented by a treating provider?
  • There is a conflict with the attending provider?

Since abnormal findings (laboratory, x-ray, pathology, and other diagnostic results) are not coded and reported unless the attending provider indicates their clinical significance you first need to ensure the finding is a reportable diagnosis before you can query for the associated diagnosis to be added. If findings are outside the normal range and the attending has ordered other tests to evaluate the condition or prescribed treatment, it would be appropriate to query the physician to have the clinical significance clarified and diagnosis added.

Editor’s Note: CDI Boot Camp Instructor Sharme Brodie RN, CCDS, answered this question. Contact her at For information regarding CDI Boot Camps offered by HCPro visit

Q&A: Including diagnosis from consult notes

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Q: How would the following be viewed if it was included in a cardiology consult note:

“Mr. X has paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. He had a recurrence last night which was asymptomatic. We think this happens all the time at home. This is not a pacing post-conditioning (PPC). He is back in normal sinus rhythm (NSR). I would restart his warfarin if Dr. Y will allow. Goal International Normalized Ratio (INR) is 2-3.”

A: Because code assignment can be based on documentation of other physicians (e.g., consultants, residents, or anesthesiologists) that note meets criteria for a secondary diagnosis and doesn’t conflict with the attending physician. I can see where this case could be tricky, since it looks like the condition did not require further evaluation or diagnostic testing, and did not increase nursing care or increase the length of stay. However, the cardiologist did want to restart the patient’s warfarin and if that occurred during this admission, then it would be treatment and make it a reportable condition. This could be a vulnerable claim if the physician does not document the atrial fibrillation in the discharge summary, with the need for continued follow up-care regarding the warfarin and/or if the paroxysmal atrial fibrillation is the only CC.

Editor’s Note: Sharme Brodie RN, CCDS, AHIMA-approved ICD-10-CM/PCS trainer, CDI education specialist and CDI Boot Camp instructor for HCPro in Danvers, Massachusetts, answered this question. For information, contact her at For information regarding CDI Boot Camps offered by HCPro, visit

Q&A: Clinical definitions and core measure capture

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Q: How have you handled situations when specialty physicians and hospitalists do not agree with diagnoses impacting core measures?

A: It becomes difficult because the clinical definitions of some disease processes are a little bit tricky. In specific scenarios such as acute myocardial infarction (AMI) and congestive heart failure (CHF), we’ve brought together a team of coding, quality, case management, and the physician groups involved to develop specific clinical definitions everyone can agree on. That cut down a lot of the back and forth that we’ve had along the way.
The coders got stuck in the middle of it. Coders don’t feel comfortable going up to a physician and saying, “Okay, Doctor Jones documented this as a STEMI, but you’re saying it’s not. You’re saying it’s not even an AMI.” That situation puts the coders and CDI staff in a very difficult position. We’re not the physician who’s ultimately responsible for the diagnosis of the patient, but we’re trying to dig through all the information.
We tried to select the most widely accepted clinical definition of CHF, because we don’t want to pick the most obscure definition that’s out there and narrow the field down to the point where we’re going to look odd when you compare us to other hospitals. By having an agreement about what that clinical picture is for a patient, a clinical definition for a diagnosis really sets the groundwork so that you don’t have all those conflicts back and forth in the chart.
It’s not a perfect world. We still have some cases that have to be clarified, but the nice thing you don’t have it happening all the time. You can follow the coding guidelines about the attending physician being ultimately responsible for the diagnoses of the patient and you can go back to that attending physician using the agreed upon clinical definitions.
Editor’s Note: Heather Taillon, RHIA, manager of corporate coding support services at Franciscan Alliance in Greenwood, Indiana, answered this question. This answer was originally published on JustCoding and is provided based on the limited information submitted to JustCoding.

Q&A: Sequencing a diagnosis when the phrase ‘versus’ is used

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

Q: Is it okay to code a diagnosis if the physician documents two diagnoses using the phrase “versus” between them? For example, the patient arrives with abdominal pain and the physician orders labs and other tests but they all come back normal. In the discharge note, the physician documents “abdominal pain, gastroenteritis versus irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).”

When I first started as a CDI specialist I was told we could not use diagnosis when “versus” was stated, and that we had to query for clarification.

A: Always refer back to the ICD-9-CM (ICD-10-CM/PCS) Official Guidelines for Coding and Reporting if you are unsure of how to sequence or apply codes. Guidelines applicable to your situation are located in Section II, Selection of Principal Diagnosis.

The first guideline states:

“In those rare instances when two or more contrasting or comparative diagnoses are documented as “either/or” (or similar terminology), they are coded as if the diagnoses were confirmed and the diagnoses are sequenced according to the circumstances of the admission. If no further determination can be made as to which diagnosis should be principal, either diagnosis may be sequenced first.”

However, let’s review another guideline from the same section which states:

“When a symptom(s) is followed by contrasting/comparative diagnoses, the symptom code is sequenced first. All the contrasting/comparative diagnoses should be coded as secondary diagnoses.”

In the situation described, the physician documented a symptom, abdominal pain, followed by two contrasting diagnoses, gastroenteritis and IBS in the discharge summary. The principal diagnosis is the abdominal pain and secondary diagnoses are the gastroenteritis and the IBS.

If there is no symptom diagnosis documented–for example the physician documents NSTEMI versus GERD–the coder would assign a code for each, sequencing the principal according to the circumstances of the admission (as it tells us to in the Guidelines). Typically, however, the physician will have identified either the presence of the NSTEMI or the GERD, based on enzymes, and other testing.


Q&A: Identifying the MS-DRG for unreleated surgical procedures

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Q: Could you please explain unrelated surgical procedure DRGs? For example, a patient with a principal diagnosis of pneumonia whose surgical procedure transurethral resection of the prostate (TURP), MS-DRG 168. Also can you explain how we can differentiate between extensive operating room (OR) procedure and non-extensive OR procedure.

A: Many CDI specialists with a clinical background are what I like to call, encoder dependent. What I mean by that is we’ve been trained to “code” using an encoder and create our working MS-DRGs based on “grouper” software. It is often helpful to understand how to manually assign a MS-DRG. The basics steps for assigning a MS-DRG are as follows:

  1. Identify all the applicable diagnoses in the health record
  2. Identify the principal diagnosis (the condition after study to be chiefly responsible for occasioning the admission)
  3. Determine its associated ICD code (we currently use ICD-9-CM, but we’ll eventually use ICD-10-CM)
  4. Identify the base/medical DRG noting its Major Diagnostic Category/body system
  5. Identify any/all procedures

This is where it can get a little tricky. The UHDDS (Uniform Hospital Discharge Data set) defines the principal procedure as

  • One that was performed for definitive treatment, rather than one performed for diagnostic or exploratory purposes, or was necessary to take care of a complication
  • If there appear to be two procedures that are principal, then the one most related to the principal diagnosis should be selected as the principal procedure

If there was a procedure performed take the following steps:

  1. Determine the associated procedure codes (currently based on ICD-9-CM Vol. 3 codes and soon to be ICD-10-PCS) and determine if the procedure code associated with the principal procedure as listed in the DRG Expert?
  2. If the code isn’t in the DRG Expert index of procedures, it is for one of two reasons: Either it is not a “reimbursable” procedure (i.e., one that will affect the MS-DRG assignment) or is it a major OR procedure
  3. If there isn’t a procedure or it doesn’t impact DRG assignment, does the medical DRG allow for movement i.e., can patients be put into different groups based on the presence or absence of a complicating condition (CC) or major complicating condition (MCC)
  4. If so, check to see if any of the remaining diagnoses, which are now considered “secondary diagnoses” are CCs or MCCs
  5. Finalize the working DRG
  6. If the procedure code is in the same MDC/body system as the principal diagnosis assign the new surgical MS-DRG (this is the most common scenario and is often referred to as a “match”)
  7. If the procedure code is not in the same MDC/body system a different process is used to assign the surgical MS-DRG

The MS-DRG system is based on the assumption that if there is a “reimbursable” medical intervention/procedure that the case/claim will remain in the same body system (MDC) as the principal diagnosis will apply. However, there are occasions when the principal procedure is not related to the principal diagnoses because it is associated with a different MDC/body system as in the example you describe, which will require you to take some additional steps, including:

  1. Turn to the start of “DRGs Associated with All MDCs.”
  2. Scan the procedure codes listed under DRG 984 Prostatic O.R. Procedure Unrelated to PDX to try to locate the applicable procedure code.  These are codes that range from 60.0 to 60.99 within ICD-9-CM Vol. 3. If the applicable code is found under DRG 984 then the case will fall within a DRG referred to as a “triplet” where either a CC or a MCC can “move” the DRG. Check the remaining diagnoses codes to see if any are classified as a CC or MCC and finalize the working DRG based on the value of the applicable secondary diagnoses resulting in a final DRG between 986 and 984

Your example of a principal diagnosis of pneumonia (respiratory system MDC) with a procedure of a TURP will fall into one of these DRGs because the TURP is not a procedure located within the respiratory MDC/body system, but is classified as a prostate procedure and found under DRG 984. Your final MS-DRG assignment will depend on the presence or absence of secondary diagnose classified as a CC or MCC.

If the procedure code is not found under DRG 984, scan the procedure codes listed under DRG 987 Nonextensive O.R. Procedure Unrelated to PDX to try to locate the applicable procedure code. These codes span several pages within the DRG Expert. If the applicable code is found under DRG 987 then the case will fall within a DRG referred to as a “triplet” where either a CC or a MCC can “move” the DRG. Check the remaining diagnoses codes to see if any are classified as a CC or MCC and finalize the working DRG based on the value of the applicable secondary diagnoses resulting in a final DRG between 987 and 989.

If the procedure code is not found under DRG 984 or DRG 987 and it was not associated with a page when referencing a procedure index or if it was found, it was in a different MDC/body system than the PDX then the assumption is the case/claim belongs in DRGs 981-983. This final step requires a leap of faith since it is based on a process of elimination where this is the “last resort” for DRG assignment. These DRGs are heavily scrutinized by external auditors as assignment within these DRGs can erroneously inflate reimbursement if the case was improperly assigned. As above, this is a DRG is a “triplet” where either a CC or a MCC can “move” the DRG. So check the remaining diagnoses codes to see if any are classified as a CC or MCC and finalize the working DRG based on the value of the applicable secondary diagnoses.

Editor’s Note: Cheryl Ericson, MS, RN, CCDS, CDIP, AHIMA Approved ICD-10-CM/PCS Trainer, CDI Education Director for HCPro Inc., answered this question. Contact her at For information regarding CDI Boot Camps offered by HCPro visit

Q&A: Querying for CHF for systolic/diastolic specificity

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Q: After reviewing Coding Clinic for ICD-9-CM, First Quarter 2014, p. 6, regarding heart failure and preserved or reduced ejection fraction the coding department began querying for a direct link between congestive heart failure (CHF) and the systolic/diastolic dysfunction that is often times noted in the medical record, but not directly linked to the CHF diagnosis.

For example, CHF is documented in the history of present illness as the reason for admission. The attending consults cardiology and cardiology’s progress note states severe systolic dysfunction. Our coders are now directed to query for the type of CHF and not just acuity in this example. Also going forward, if documentation in the electronic health record states acute CHF on line 1 and systolic dysfunction is on line 4, coding will query for systolic CHF.

Our coding department did submit a related question on this matter to AHA Coding Clinic for ICD-9-CM Editorial Board but they are no longer accepting questions related to ICD-9-CM since they have already transitioned to ICD-10-CM/PCS advice.

So we were hoping that you might have some advice as to whether such queries were actually necessary or whether the coders can go ahead and code for the type without a query.

A: There is no need to query when the chars states the type of dysfunction(systolic, diastolic, or combined) concurrently with a diagnosis of CHF, according to Coding Clinic for ICD-9-CM, First Quarter 2009, p. 8. If CHF is documented by a clinician in notes, history of present illness, consult, etc., and ‘systolic dysfunction’, as one example, is written in a similar fashion during the same episode of care, we do not query for linkage.

Editor’s Note: Paul Evans, RHIA, CCS, CCS-P, CCDS, Manager, Regional Clinical Documentation & Coding Integrity at Sutter West Bay, in  San Francisco, answered this question in the ACDIS discussion forum CDI Talk.

Q&A:Work with physicians to iron out clinical indicators for clarifying COPD

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Q: We have a problem getting our physicians to understand what we are querying for (chronic respiratory failure) when a patient is on home oxygen continuously with documented supplementary oxygen (SpO2) of <90% or arterial blood gas (ABG) with hypoxemia documented. They tell us Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is chronic respiratory failure by definition. Can you help us clarify this or give us some tips on how to educate our physicians?

A: I see two pieces of education as needed in this situation. First, we need to establish the diagnostic criteria for chronic respiratory failure. Many physicians do consider COPD as chronic respiratory failure. But not every patient with COPD requires continuous oxygen support. Some require oxygen at night only, others only as needed, and others do not require oxygen at all.

If your organization has not developed an agreed upon definition of both acute and chronic respiratory failure maybe now is the time to do so. Work with your pulmonologist to define these terms with examples of the clinical indicators needed to make the diagnosis. These clinical indicators would then be the standards the CDI specialists and coders would use to determine if a query is needed as well. Once you have an agreed upon criteria, you can use it as part of your physician education.

Examples of diagnostic criteria for chronic respiratory might include:

  • Persistent decrease in respiratory function
  • Chronic continuous home oxygen
  • Chronic hypercarbia due to respiratory condition (i.e. pCo2>40)
  • Use of chronic steroids for underlying lung pathology
  • Polycythemia

Secondly, physicians need to understand wording such as “end stage lung disease,” “severe lung disease,” or use of the GOLD staging for COPD does not lead to a code assignment that reflects chronic respiratory failure. Using the clinical indicators such as those above, discuss with the physicians that not every person with COPD meets such criteria. Some are more severe than others, and as mentioned above not all require oxygen. Not all require chronic steroid use.

A patient with chronic respiratory failure has a higher severity of illness (SOI) and risk of mortality (ROM). These patients have a much lower threshold to enter acute respiratory failure. They can decompensate very quickly. The physicians may not understand why the wording of chronic respiratory failure is so important.

We need to ensure the physicians understand how important it is to capture the SOI/ROM that accurately reflects their patients’ conditions. This will affect both the quality measures assigned to the organization and to the physicians.

I hope this information helps. Please let me know if you need further assistance and also if you discover a “magic cure” to this documentation issue.

Q&A: Fluid overload in ESRD patient

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Q: I need help identifying the principal diagnosis for the following situation. The patient presented with shortness of breath and hypoxia, and had emergent dialysis which resolved his symptoms. However the patient’s international normalized ratio (INR) was sub therapeutic due to his end stage renal disease. A high dose of warfarin had to be given, and the patient was admitted as inpatient. I am trying to decide if this would be a principle diagnosis of fluid overload (276.69) or abnormal coagulation profile (790.92)

A: The patient had fluid overload, was emergently dialyzed, and “symptoms resolved post dialysis” which suggested to me that the fluid overload was resolved, and they were prepared to discharge the patient. However, the INR was noted to be too low, and it was not possible to bridge with Lovenox injections on an outpatient basis, so needed to be admitted to manage the anti-coagulation (get the INR to goal levels).  So, the reason for the patient becoming an inpatient was the INR, not the fluid overload that was resolved prior to the decision to admit, so I would go with 790.92.

Editor’s Note: This question was answered by ACDIS Advisory Board member Donald A. Butler, RN, BSN, CDI Manager at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, N.C. Contact him at