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Q&A: Bringing surgeons on board with CDI efforts

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: I am new to the CDI role and looking for suggestions as to how to work with the surgeons to help them beef up their documentation?

A: I smiled when I read your question, this challenge is not particular with you. Surgeons offer us a number of challenges. One of the reasons is that surgeons are reimbursed differently than other providers. When the primary care physician rounds on inpatient acute care patients they document their notes to assist with their E&M (evaluation and management) charges in mind. Depending on the extent of their assessment, the patient’s condition, and the amount of time the physician spends with their patient, the physician can submit a bill for the visit based on four levels. They will submit charges for every time they round on the patient.

When CDI professionals work with the primary care providers to improve their documentation it often can have a direct impact on their E&M levels as well. When we talk about how their documentation improvement efforts support their own billing as well as the hospital’s they can be more open to CDI efforts.

Surgeons are reimbursed differently. For example a surgeon performs a total hip replacement. He will be reimbursed one global fee which covers the pre-operative, peri-operative and post-operative care. Their documentation within the post-operative period does not directly affect their payment. They don’t have a tangible motivation to write a thorough post-operative note.

Now, I don’t want to put all surgeons in this category, as I have met many that offer excellent documentation starting with the pre-op history and physical. When I find a surgeon who documents well I will hold them up as a top performer and use examples from his documentation for others to see. Sometimes, a little peer pressure works wonders.

Another more tangible motivator, is to discuss severity of illness/risk of mortality (SOI/ROM). These measures are determined based on their documentation. Then discuss quality ratings and how patients, organizations, and even commercial payer contracts with providers are based on quality measures pulled from SOI/ROM data.

No surgeon wants bad ratings for everyone to view on the internet. Explain that your efforts as a CDI not only will improve reimbursement for the organization (which consequently buys new operating room equipment and pays for qualified staff to care for his patients) but also can effectively assist in increasing the SOI/ROM of his patients. So if his patients develop complications or die due to underlying comorbidities their level of SOI will demonstrate a patient who was at risk for such complications. There is much information on physician quality ratings on the internet to assist you in these discussions.


Book Excerpt: Establishing appropriate rapport

Clinical Documentation Improvement Specialist's Handbook

The Clinical Documentation Improvement Specialist’s Handbook, second edition

One of the most convincing reasons for establishing a concurrent documentation review program is the ability to discuss a patient’s record while the details of the patient’s case are still fresh in the physicians’ mind. Such interactions are as important for resolution of the medical record documentation as it is for providing ongoing education for the physician. Not surprisingly then, many experts encourage facilities to maximize opportunities for verbal interactions between the CDI team and the physician staff, whether it is on the patient care unit or through meetings in the physician lounge. To do so, however, CDI specialists need to exhibit a unique set of interpersonal skills. the CDI specialist must be both positive and professional in his or her interactions with physicians but they must also be able to interpret the physician’s body language at the time of the discussion and be able to weigh and recall a particular physician’s communication preferences over time. Such skills may be summarized by the colloquialism “know your audience.”

For example, Dr. Smith may respond well to e-mail communication but become visibly uncomfortable, aggressive, or reclusive when approached on the floor of a nursing unit. Conversely, Dr. Adams consistently ignores written queries left in the medical record and does not return phone calls. Approach him during his routine rounds, however, and he will answer multiple CDI questions happily.

Beyond understanding the physician’s preference for type of communication, the CDI specialist must also be aware of the personality type of the physician. A process-orientated physician, for example, may respond positively to a CDI specialist who explains how his or her documentation in the medical record translates through the HIM department, billing, and, ultimately, reimbursement and quality data reporting. A results-orientated physician, however, would see such discussions as a waste of time, preferring to understand how the process will affect him or her directly, instead. The ability of the CDI staff member to not only be aware of these different dynamics, but also to adjust their queries and education accordingly can appease wary physicians and earn physician support for the CDI program overall.

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.

Q&A: Locating clinical indicator support in medical literature

Ask us a question by leaving a comment here on the ACDIS Blog.

Ask us a question by leaving a comment here on the ACDIS Blog.

Q: I have heard that we should use materials from the physician’s world support our queries, such as publications from the American Medical Association. I tried searching for documentation tips related to medical necessity but was not able to find anything relevant. Do you have any suggestions about where I should start?

A: Physicians tend to “listen” or respect such definitions if they come from medical literature/research than if we describe definitions based on AHA Coding Clinic for ICD-9-CM or the Official Guidelines for Coding and Reporting.

Let’s say your CDI program wants to develop guidelines, standard definitions, for what constitutes acute and chronic respiratory failure. The CDI staff members will look to these definitions to determine whether a query is warranted, include them on physician educational tools such as newsletters or posters, and cite them as references on related query forms. Examples of good resources are the National Kidney Foundation, American Heart Association, and American College of Cardiologists. When I search for specific diagnostic guidelines, I like to pull examples from physician professional journals such as The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

When you cite these journals it lends you and your team a bit more credibility. So when the physician asks why you have initiated a query for a particular diagnosis you can show him/her where you obtained your information and demonstrate that it came from a clinical source. Including a copy of the article with any additional follow up conversations or education is another way to reinforce that you (and your CDI team) have done your research and the guidelines (both diagnostic and expected treatment) are based on evidence in medicine.

While such literature represents a good starting place, increasingly best practice is for CDI professionals to work with coders, physicians, and other non-physician clinical providers to develop a consensus definition for commonly queried diagnoses. So, for example, you might research clinical indicators for acute and chronic respiratory failure and cite the sources you find. Then you could review these with the coding team to assess the related coding definitions. Then bring all this information to bear, working with your pulmonologists on staff using their professional associations or publications to define the terms in question. [more]

Video offers DRG overview for physicians

There are only so many hours in a day. And only so many minutes to explain the complicated process of coding and reimbursement to a less than eager room full of physicians. In an hour-long session, Bryan P. Hull, MD, site lead for ICD-10 enterprise project and assistant professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix found he spent 30 minutes or more talking about the definition and purpose of the DRG system—over and over again.

“I knew there had to be a better way to do this,” says Hull.

Hull began researching online tools for video creation and came upon VideoScribe which essentially animates PowerPoint presentations making it seem as though someone has been videotaped hand drawing the presentation.

With a solution in hand, he just needed a story-line for his presentation and support from his CDI teammates, which he readily received.

“Some people stay up late at night thinking about the meaning of life,” Hull states at the outset of the five minute video, as an artist’s hand quickly sketches a cartoon image of a Greek philosopher. “Other people think about the possibility of life on other planets,” he adds as the artist colors an alien head in a thought bubble. “But in care management, other things keep us up at night; things like clinical documentation improvement.”

The video goes on to describe the role of documentation in quality reporting and the role of the CDI specialist in helping physicians capture that documentation. Hull provides two case examples of patients with pneumonia and walks through the different conditions, demonstrating how variables such as home oxygen, COPD, and other conditions affect the patient’s severity of illness, length of stay, and the DRG assignment.

Now, Hull goes to the meetings, runs the video, and makes himself available to support the CDI team members. “We start the video and the physicians recognize my voice and laugh,” he says. “They really get a chuckle out of it. It opens the door to the CDI team to take over the presentation and drill down into more detailed documentation improvement initiatives.”

Mayo has played the video at all its Phoenix divisions and even at the enterprise-wide CDI conference held in the fall. Now, Hull envisions adding other videos focusing on DRGs 177, 178, 179, and turning them into a collection.

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from the providers regarding the videos. We can measure the difference, the improvement in the documentation overall. While that may not be due specifically to the video we know that our training matters.”

Book Excerpt: Target messages to physicians


The Complete Guide to Physician Relationships

Historically, healthcare organizations have been operating under the belief that when it comes to communicating with physicians, more is better. The tendency is to “cover the bases” and make sure they are sent details on everything, just in case. This is not effective. More is simply more. At high-performance institutions, teams carefully scrutinize the message and the target audience. This discipline demonstrates respect for the physician’s time, knowledge of their professional specialization, and an understanding of their needs.

Often the number of department within an organization sending messages to practices confounds the “relevance” challenge… A useful first step is to audit the current volume of outbound messages, the relevance for the practice, the timing and overlap… Next, find out what doctors need to know. Too often, physicians are not asked what they want or need to know; instead messages are “pushed out” with little regard for the physician’s needs.

Editor’s Note: This excerpt was adapted from The Complete Guide to Physician Relationships: Strategies for the Accountable Care Era, by Kriss Barlow, RN, MBA.

Guest Blog: Why CDI efforts should matter to patients and physicians

by Melinda Tully, MSN, CCDS
For providers, the days of earning full Medicare payment by simply submitting complete and accurate information are drawing to a close.  In 2013, Medicare will begin paying healthcare providers and facilities based on the quality of care provided, not just the quantity of services.

Then, starting in 2014, base payments will depend on the outcomes of the care documented.

So how do we shape up before we face even bigger federal cuts?  Simple. Clinical Documentation Improvement. CDI. It’s an acronym that everyone in the healthcare industry should become familiar with.

I sometimes like to think of CDI as investigative reporting for healthcare. CDI helps make sure the patient record is telling the true clinical patient story, including what care the physician provided and why, to ensure the record is coded and billed appropriately.  For healthcare facilities and physician practices to thrive through these changes they need to understand the value of CDI and its direct impact on both patients and physicians.

Patients a Priority
Regardless of the rule or regulation, physicians will not change what they do until they see what’s in it for patients. While it’s easy to see how better clinical documentation can help patients, it’s hard to make that a reality in a typical healthcare setting where clinicians are juggling tight schedules and hectic patient workloads.

The most successful CDI programs work with clinicians to enhance the core training they learned in medical school, teaching them how to document a patient’s true  clinical story during their workflow to best represent the complexity of a patient’s case and decisions made along the way.  This helps keep patients safe, improves communication between clinicians and protects providers from lost revenue.

Quality scores are becoming more transparent to the public every day and high mortality rates and medical errors make headlines. While many CDI programs are led by finance departments, clinical documentation is not an issue reserved for HIM departments. Clinical leaders from many areas including chief medical officers and quality officers need to be involved in CDI to keep the patient’s best interests in mind.

For the last several years I have worked with physician leaders at a large academic medical center to identify and implement CDI efforts focused on improving quality. These efforts have transformed the organization’s performance metrics, improving mortality indexes so they more accurately reflect the severity of illness of their patient population.  These quality indicators are important because decisions are made based on these types of quality metrics – whether it’s by patients seeking treatments or payers evaluating providers.  The best part about this customer’s success is they have improved their documentation  and now their clinical information is so good that when physicians look ahead to pay-for- performance, Accountable Care Organization implementation and bundled payments, they know they are in good shape for the future. [more]

Book Excerpt: Educate physicians through involvement

The best way to obtain physician support for your CDI program is to engage their help in query and program development.

Engage the physician in query development

Experienced CDI programs often suggest that the best form of physician education is physician involvement. The earlier physicians get involved in the development of the CDI program, the greater their investment becomes. With the program parameters established, CDI staff can turn their attention to the development of physician query templates.

The medical staff most closely linked to a particular condition should vet the clinical guidelines incorporated in the query forms. For example, many facilities have clinical guidelines to help determine types of congestive heart failure based on recent medical literature and as supported by the cardiology department.

The American Hospital Association’s Coding Clinic for ICD-9-CM supports the development of guidelines for querying physicians. It states:

Facilities can work together with their medical staff to develop facility-specific coding guidelines, which promote complete documentation needed for consistent coding assignment. … These facility guidelines must not conflict with the Official ICD-9-CM Guidelines for Coding and Reporting developed by the Cooperating Parties and additionally they should not be developed to replace the physician documentation needed to support code assignment.

Further, the ICD-9-CM Official Guidelines for Coding and Reporting state:

A joint effort between the healthcare provider and the coding professional is essential to achieve complete and accurate documentation, code assignment, and reporting of diagnoses and procedures. The importance of consistent, complete documentation in the medical record cannot be overemphasized.

Physicians are not the enemy. Despite how busy they are, they want to comply. They want positive feedback. They want to do the best job they can for their facility and, perhaps more importantly, for their patients.

Editor’s Note: This post is an excerpt from The Physician Documentation Improvement Pocket Guide instruction manual. The Physician Documentation Improvement Pocket Guide, by Pamela P. Bensen, MD, MS, FACEP, is a tri-fold laminated card which comes in packs of 25, to assist CDI specialists in their physician education efforts.

To obtain physician support simply engage and collaborate

You CAN get physicians to support your CDI program.

By Heidi Hillstrom MS, MBA, RN, CCDS

As a 10-year veteran of a successful CDI program, I am accustomed to being asked, “How did you build your program?”  My response invariably is how vital it is to bring your physicians on board.

Before you respond, “But you don’t know how difficult this is with our physician group!” Or, “Get real Heidi! That isn’t going to happen here!” Let me assure you that obtaining physician support for CDI efforts is definitely achievable.

It all hinges on relationship building. This didn’t happen overnight, for us of course.  Once they understood there was no implied criticism of their documentation ability or attempt to tell them how to practice medicine, a lot of the initial hostility disappeared.

First, be visible to your doctors. Whenever possible, perform your reviews on the units.  Greet them by name.  Don’t be afraid to enter into general conversations that are occurring. It doesn’t have to involve documentation.  The performance of a favorite sports team can be a great conversation starter. During these conversation moments, you will have opportunities to discuss clinical documentation, but keep it brief and to the point.

Second, be respectful of your physicians’ limited time.  I requested to be included on the agenda of their staff meetings.  Personally, I never tell a physician I’m there to provide them with “documentation education.”  They are well educated, and this can be perceived as being condescending. Instead, I tell them that I am here to provide them with the most recent documentation “information” that impacts their practice.

I found formal power point presentations tend to lose their attention fairly quickly.  Rather I present an informative agenda tailored to their particular specialty and encourage open discussion.  I ask them to share their expertise in understanding the clinical indicators for a diagnosis.  This is really where the collaboration begins.

Be prepared to listen to their frustration with the documentation process without becoming defensive.  A little empathy can go a long way. It is crucial to follow up with any questions they may have.  Finally, ask them for their input on how the CDI clinicians can improve their communication process.

Once I became more than a faceless documentation query, building a relationship became much easier.  Now, I am often approached on the units and contacted, by physicians, with additional documentation questions and or concerns. Friendly conversation became natural. My template or note became a message from me.  My queries are more likely to get a response.  In fact, once the physician and clinician relationship grew and clinical documentation is now a collaborative effort, I am often greeted with, “Hey Heidi, is that question for me?” once they saw a query form in my hand.

In closing, I am pleased that I have gone from a physician fiend that they avoided to a friend who physicians seek out.

Editor’s Note: Heidi Hillstrom, MS, MBA, RN, CCDS, is Clinical Documentation Manager at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, MN. Contact her at


Pre-Conference Q&A: ‘The Physician Advisor’s Role in CDI’

James S. Kennedy, MD, will present a two-day pre-conference regarding the role and responsibilities of physician advisors for CDI.

Editor’s Note: Over the coming days and weeks, we will post a series of Q&As with presenters and participants from the 2012 ACDIS Conference in San Diego. Today’s post features James S. Kennedy, MD, CCS, ACDIS Advisory Board member and a director at FTI Healthcare in Brentwood, Tenn. Kennedy will co-present the ACDIS pre-conference event titled “The Physician Advisor’s Role in CDI: A collaborative approach for success.” The two-day session takes place Tuesday and Wednesday, May 8-9, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Q: What role should CDI physician advisors play in audit review and data analysis?

A: Clinical Documentation Improvement (CDI) physician advisors are critical to the entire process of ensuring the integrity of coded administrative data (ICD-9-CM and CPT) and its application to physician and hospital quality and cost efficiency measurement.

CDI is the process of preventing and reconciling inconsistent, incomplete, imprecise, conflicting, or illegible documentation to bridge the gap between treating physicians and coders. Physician advisors must be able to analyze data derived from these codes to target their efforts and should review the results from documentation audits as to hone their message.

Examples of these activities include:

  1. Data Analysis: ICD-9-CM coded administrative data is primarily used to determine, measure, and report severity and risk adjusted outcomes and cost data for various metrics.  These include cost, length of stay, complications, mortality, readmissions, and the like.

    Risk and severity adjustment means that the actual metric being measured (observed) is compared to the likelihood of that metric occurring (expected).  CDI ensures the integrity of the expected metric, usually increasing it since many clinical descriptions are incomplete or imprecise, thus reducing the risk-adjusted metric.

    Take for example the Colorado Hospital Report Card. Note that Colorado reports an actual mortality rate and a “risk-adjusted” mortality rate.  There are instances when the risk-adjusted mortality is less than the actual mortality since the death rate is less than expected.  There are others, however, where the risk-adjusted mortality rate is higher than the actual.

    Another aspect is measuring complications of care.  Some facilities code incidental serosal tears as “accidental lacerations.”  Physician advisors would want to analyze Patient Safety Indicator data at their hospitals (e.g. from Thomson-Reuters, the Delta Group, and the like) to determine if the data driving these metrics is accurate.

    For example, look at the website “CareChex,” a division of the Delta Group, to see how it ranks overall surgical care in Chattanooga, Tenn.

    Physician advisors should partner with their chief quality officer to learn how these risk-adjustment methodologies work and how the definition, diagnosis, documentation, and coding of these conditions factor into them.

    Armed with this information, the physician advisor can help develop systems that work with providers to accurately capture these metrics.

  2. Chart Audit: Physician advisors are integral to the chart review, given that they recognize the clinical scenarios that are often not documented completely and precisely.  Imagine a patient admitted with a pH of 7.02, pCO2 of 100 and a pO2 of 40 and stupor requiring mechanical ventilation but only described as respiratory insufficiency with CO2 narcosis. This patient has acute hypercapnic respiratory failure and could potentially be labeled as having a metabolic encephalopathy. The physician advisor recognizes these scenarios and can help concurrent reviewer and coders recognize the circumstances whereby query would be prudent.

AHIMA published a nice summary of the role of the physician advisor, and you read more about the role in the January edition of the CDI Journal.

Q: How can a physician advisor help achieve buy-in from the medical staff for CDI efforts?

A: The best ways I know to achieve buy-in from the medical staff are to:

  1. Make CDI an academic exercise, emphasizing the definitions of clinical conditions.  These can include:
    1. Transient ischemic attack versus stroke. Note that the 24-hour time frame is completely eliminated.
    2. Acute myocardial infarction vs. accelerated angina. Note the critical role of properly calibrating troponins and equating elevated levels with “symptoms of ischemia.”
    3. Acute kidney injury.  Note that it is only a rise of the serum creatinine of only 0.3 mg/dl
  1. Ask the quality officers of your hospitals to generate individual physician reports regarding their own cost efficiency and outcomes, outlining the actual and the expected outcomes.  Should a physician see that their expected mortality rates is higher than expected and that CDI is a strong solution addressing the “expected” component, his or her participation and interest is likely to increase!

Q: How involved should the physician advisor be in the day-to-day operations of the CDI program?

A: Given that most physician advisors have their own private practices, they do not need to be involved with the direct day-to-day operations of initiating queries. They should, however, be available at designated times to support concurrent reviewers and coders regarding the clinical circumstances assessments of clinical situations requiring query and to aid in their construction.

If at times a physician does not respond, the physician advisor may potentially have a collegial conversation about a query.  One must be cautious, however, to frame this conversation about defining a patient’s condition without putting the physician on the defensive.

One of the fun things a physician advisor can do is support the development of the electronic medical record as to make the capture of complete and precise documentation less onerous to the practicing physician.

Q: What are you looking forward to most about this year’s ACDIS Conference?

A: Wow….what’s not to look forward to? ACDIS is everything a CDI professional, coder, or physician advisor would want—clinical conversations, problem solving, medical informatics, and collegial interaction with like-minded individuals working to solve the challenges we all share.

It’ll be great to be with old friends and make new ones!  Not to mention that all this occurs in downtown San Diego, in a phenomenal setting (this is a beautiful hotel), right next to Balboa Park (let’s rent a bicycle and ride!) and close to Sea World, the ocean, and all that makes southern California great!

I must say, however, that the most anticipated event for me is the Physician Advisor pre-conference where Dr. Trey LaCharité and I spend two days training physicians from all over the nation to understand and embrace CDI principles.

I feel that this contributes to the professional practice of medicine and empowers physicians to successfully negotiate healthcare reform.  Needless to say, I’m very excited about the conference!



Reflections on physician leadership and engagement with CDI programs

Over the past several years there have been a number of conversations that touch on physician leadership involvement with CDI. Programs can and do achieve success, but so much more is achieved when there is a proactive and supportive medical voice.

Physician leadership can come from a number of sources and in a variety of forms. Some CDI programs (a few anyway) report directly or indirectly to a physician executive (medical staff functions, chief medical officer [CMO], etc.) and other programs report to the quality department where a physician executive is frequently directly involved. In these circumstances, I hope the physician executive maintains some amount of time dedicated for CDI efforts.

Some organizations are fortunate enough to have physician leadership within the broader organization that is (or have been convinced to be) very supportive to CDI efforts. From what I’ve heard, these frequently include CMOs and chiefs of staff and/or service lines within a given facility. Finally, some physicians, such as a medical director, physician champion, advisor, or liaison, devote a portion of their time to work directly with CDI. (Read more about the expanding roles and responsibilities of CDI physician advisors in the January 2012 edition of the CDI Journal.)

Furthermore, even with supportive medical staff leadership, how that support translates into action varies. Some facilities provide physicians time to offer educational sessions to their CDI and coding teams. Others provide CDI education sessions to entire physician groups by service line.

Most CDI programs earn physician leadership and support through the tireless efforts of the CDI staff and program leaders. Only occasionally have I seen this support present from the very beginning.

Some Perspectives

I’d like to look at the “state of affairs” in regards to physician leadership.  One ACDIS weekly online poll (2008) addressed the simple question of whether respondents had a “physician champion” and if that champion was effective. That poll was rather surprising; only 46% indicated they had a physician champion, and half of the respondents with a physician champion actually rated him/her as ineffective. So, according to that poll, only 23% of programs have an effective physician advisor.

ACDIS repeated the  poll (with slightly different wording) in April 2011 and though the results showed some improvement, they were still discouraging. In 2011, 31% described having a very beneficial physician champion, 22% described their physician champion as “’minimally effective”, 24% felt the position was not affordable, and 16% indicated that their program could not find a good candidate. Even more surprisingly to me, 7% said they simply did not see the need for the roll.

Additional polls from 2008 which echo the theme of limited physician support for CDI programs include:

Other recent poll responses illustrate different aspects of physician involvement in CDI , but I thought these painted an interesting picture.

Don’t forget the most recent study, published in the January CDI Journal, in which 73% (178 individuals) indicated that their physician advisor spends five hours or less dedicated to CDI efforts, and 54% described their advisor as either moderately effective or ineffective.


I think it is  important to have data to effectively measure any focus area of interest. I believe a couple of key metric data pieces provide insight to the level of success with physician engagement. In any analysis, I would include items such as:

  • Physician response rates
  • Severity of illness (SOI)/risk of mortality (ROM) data
  • Trends in volume of queries and more specifically the focus of queries (Do CDI staff ask the same queries repeatedly?)

I specifically would not include physician agreement rate except in a broader sense in looking for individual outlier physicians, to find those who either agree to whatever the CDI specialist asks or those who never agree with the premise of a CDI specialist’s query.

As always, I’d love to hear what elements other CDI programs use to statistically validate their physicians’ involvement with and support of their CDI programs.


Quite a bit of material is available between the ACDIS online polls (I have fun with those, obviously), various blog postings, journal articles, and conference presentations that offer useful information regarding physician engagement. Several provide inspiring examples of successes. Various items from other organizations are in the public domain.

If you are interested, shoot me an e-mail or leave a comment here and I can develop a partial list of links.

Wrap -up

I am sure most agree that fostering physician engagement in CDI efforts is one of the key challenges of every CDI program.

I certainly don’t have many great answers to this question, and I’d like to hear more thoughts, experiences, and success stories. I know some great examples would be wonderful Journal articles or blog posts.

I will toss in a final thought. Organizational cultural change typically takes five years. Certainly obtaining physician interest in documentation and coded data represents a significant cultural change.

Sometimes I wonder if just need to practice a little more persistence and a lot more patience.