Episode 53: Documentation and coding with Robert Oubre

An exploration of clinical documentation and billing/coding with Dr. Robert Oubre (@Dr_Oubre), full-time hospitalist and CDI Medical Director for a community hospital in southern Louisiana.

Takeaway lessons

  1. Acute respiratory failure is justified when there is altered gas exchange (SpO2 <90%, PaO2 <60, CO2 >60 with pH <7.35, or P/F <300), clinical signs of increased work of breathing (using accessory muscles, etc), and a patient requiring respiratory support more than 4L O2 by nasal cannula. Requiring additional monitoring is also contributory.
  2. Many diagnostic names for pneumonia, such as nosocomial pneumonia or HCAP, end up coding to the same thing. Higher reimbursement comes from billing for “Gram negative pneumonia,” which requires risk factors including being hospitalized and received IV antibiotics in the last 90 days, immunosuppressed (including diabetes, alcoholism, CHF, cirrhosis, chemotherapy, CKD, drug-induced neutropenia, chronic malnutrition), or have structural lung disease such as bronchiectasis. It also requires treating with an antibiotic that covers gram negatives, and treatment for 5 or more days. If you have all of this, you may be able to bill for “gram negative pneumonia.” Treatment can be presumptive and you may state this; actual culture data is not required for this, although it is supportive if available.
  3. Diagnoses that are suspected but never fully proven can still be billed, particularly if they end up on a discharge summary.
  4. When in doubt, more detail is always better in diagnostic labels.
  5. Spell out your findings and reasoning and you’ll get more grace on your diagnoses.
  6. Sepsis diagnoses are a mess. Reimbursers tend to like sepsis 3 definitions (qSOFA), core metrics may still use the older definitions. Many facilities may have their own policies on what definition to adopt. From a clinician’s perspective, at this point, you should probably just call it sepsis when you think it’s sepsis and let the billing will work itself out.
  7. Document every diagnosis that contributes in any way to their current stay, even if your active management is minimal – it generally contributes to their risks and complexity.
  8. In 2023, the whole billing paradigm is expected to change, with less emphasis on billing based on number of categories in the HPI, ROS, PE, etc, and complexity being instead based mainly on time and acuity.
  9. Various providers can document diagnoses and all will count, but if there is dispute it will usually fall to the attending of record to make a final call.
  10. The “case mix index” is an amalgamate of the overall complexity of your patient population, which is reviewed regularly and modifies overall reimbursement; this help capture complexities and costs of care beyond what’s shown by the specific DRGs. This is based on other diagnoses and factors; hence, document everything.
  11. At the end of the day, you may not like the requirements for documentation and how it’s linked to reimbursement, but it is the way it is, and doing a poor job doesn’t mean the system will change – it just means your employer will be under-reimbursed, which in the end does affect you and your patients.


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