Practice Economics

Medicare Standard Practical Solution to Medical Coding Complexity


In the article “Common Coding Mistakes Hospitalists Should Avoid” in the August 2014 issue of The Hospitalist, the author states:

“For inpatient care, an established problem is defined as one in which a care plan has been generated by the physician (or same specialty group practice member) during the current hospitalization.”

This definition contradicts what I have been told in other coding courses regarding new vs. established problems relative to the examiner. It has been my understanding that when [I am] rotating on service and I have not seen that particular patient during the current admission, all of the current problems are new to me, even if previously identified by another member of my group. This [situation] results in a higher complexity of medical decision-making, which is reflective of the increased time spent learning a new patient when coming on service. I would appreciate clarification from the author.

–Matt George, MD,

medical director, MBHS Hospitalists

Billing and coding expert Carol Pohlig, BSN, RN, CPC, ACS, explains:

Be mindful when attending coding courses that are not contractor sponsored, as they may not validate the geographical interpretations of the rules for providers. There are several factors to consider when crediting the physician with “new” or “established” problems.

CMS documentation guidelines state: “Decision making with respect to a diagnosed problem is easier than that for an identified but undiagnosed problem.1

  • For a presenting problem with an established diagnosis, the record should reflect whether the problem is:
    • Improved, well-controlled, resolving, or resolved or
    • Inadequately controlled, worsening, or failing to change as expected.
  • For a presenting problem without an established diagnosis, the assessment or clinical impression may be stated in the form of differential diagnoses or as a “possible,” “probable,” or “rule out” diagnosis.

Although Medicare contractors utilize the Marshfield Clinic Scoring Tool when reviewing evaluation and management (E/M) services, a tool that historically refers to the “examiner” when considering the patient’s diagnoses, not all accept this tool-inspired standard, particularly in the advent of electronic health record accessibility and the idea that same-specialty physicians in a group practice are viewed as an individual physician.2,3

Reviewing information and familiarization of patients is often considered pre-service work and factored into the payment for E/M services. More importantly, the feasibility of an auditor being able to distinguish new vs. established problems at the level of the “examiner” is decreased when auditing a single date of service. Non-Medicare payers who audit E/M services do not necessarily follow contractor-specific guidelines but, rather, general CMS guidelines.

Therefore, without knowing the insurer or their interpretation at the time of service or visit level selection, the CMS-developed standard is the most practical application when considering the complexity of the encounter.


  1. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Department of Health and Human Services. Evaluation and management services guide. Available at: Accessed November 13, 2014.
  2. National Government Services. Evaluation and management documentation training too. Available at: Accessed November 13, 2014.
  3. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Medicare Claims Processing Manual. Chapter 12 – Physicians/nonphysician practitioners. Available at: Accessed November 13, 2014.

Next Article:

   Comments ()