Practice Economics

Avoid Billing, Coding Discrepancies When Documenting Patient History


In May 2012, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) released an executive summary, Coding Trends of Medicare Evaluation and Management (E/M) Services, that examined physician services from 2001 to 2010. More specifically, the OIG analyzed E/M claims to identify physicians (approximately 1700) who consistently billed higher level (i.e., more complex and more expensive) E/M codes in 2010, but they did not determine whether the E/M claims were inappropriate.1 The OIG recommended that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS):

  • Continue to educate physicians on proper billing for E/M services;
  • Encourage its contractors to review physicians’ billing for E/M services; and
  • Review physicians who bill higher level E/M codes for appropriate action.1

When documenting patient history, physicians must be aware of the common discrepancies that occur. Although the physician becomes familiar with the patient as he/she provides care throughout the hospitalization, the auditor must acquaint himself or herself with the patient using only the limited information provided in the progress note.

When documentation is requested by the payer for a specific service date, only the documentation from that service date is considered. Be sure that the information is adequate to support both clinical care and the reported service level.

Table 1. History level per visit category

click for larger image.

Patient History Requirements

Chief complaint. The chief complaint (CC) is the reason for the visit as stated in the patient’s own words. Every encounter, regardless of visit type, must include a CC. The physician must personally document and/or validate the CC with reference to a specific condition or symptom (e.g. patient complains of abdominal pain).

  • Incomplete CC example: “Follow-up”;
  • Better CC example: “Follow-up for severe abdominal cramping.”

History of present illness. The history of present illness (HPI) describes the development or progression of the patient’s current problem(s). The traditional HPI elements recognized in the 1995 documentation guidelines are location, quality, severity, duration, timing, context, modifying factors, and associated signs/symptoms.2,3

The physician must obtain and personally document the HPI. He/she also has the option to link to the HPI documented by residents (i.e., residents, fellows, interns) in compliance with the teaching physician rules or nonphysician practitioners (i.e., nurse practitioners and physician assistants) as defined by the split-shared billing rules. An auditor will not accept HPI information if the physician attempts to link to any other individual, even if that person may be qualified to obtain this (e.g. registered nurse, medical assistant) or is a student (e.g. medical students, nurse practitioner students).

Because auditors recognize both 1995 and 1997 documentation guidelines, they must also recognize the HPI differences. The 1997 HPI format promotes the status of the patient’s chronic or inactive conditions.4 The physician receives one credit for each chronic condition that is noted, along with documentation of what has occurred since the last physician encounter as it relates to the chronic condition (e.g. “patient has a history of chronic obstructive bronchitis without acute exacerbation in past six months”).

Table 2. Elements of history2,3

click for larger image*Documentation of PFSH is not required for subsequent hospital care codes.

Physicians may utilize either style of HPI documentation, and auditors must review provider records against each set of guidelines. The final audited result reflects the highest visit level supported by either set of guidelines. For example, if physician documentation yields an “extended” HPI when 1995 guidelines are used but only a “brief” HPI (see Table 2) when 1997 guidelines are reviewed, the auditor awards the physician credit for the “extended” HPI.

  • 1995 example: “The patient has intermittent (duration), sharp (quality) pain in the right upper quadrant (location) without associated nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea (associated signs/symptoms).”
  • 1997 example: “Diabetes controlled by oral medication; hyperlipidemia stable on simvastatin with increased dietary efforts; hypertension stable with pressures ranging from 130-140/80-90 overnight” (status of three chronic conditions).

Review of systems. A review of systems (ROS) is a series of questions inquiring about additional signs, symptoms, or problems currently or previously experienced by the patient as related to the CC or presenting problem. The recognized systems are constitutional; eyes; ears, nose, mouth, throat; cardiovascular; respiratory; gastrointestinal; genitourinary; musculoskeletal; integumentary (including skin and/or breast); neurological; psychiatric; endocrine; hematologic/lymphatic; and allergic/immunologic.2,3

The physician may choose to document the ROS by making a notation for individual systems: “no fever/chills (constitutional) or blurred vision (eyes); no chest pain (cardiovascular) or shortness of breath (respiratory); intermittent nausea (gastrointestinal) and occasional runny nose (ears, nose, mouth, throat).” Alternatively, the physician may inquire about all of the systems but only document the positive and pertinent negative findings related to the CC, along with an additional comment that “all other systems are negative.” Most Medicare audit contractors currently accept this method as long as all systems were reviewed.5,6,7,8,9

Be advised that ROS information can be documented by anyone, including the patient. The physician must remember to reference ROS information that is completed by individuals other than residents or nonphysician practitioners (the physician is already required to reference the documentation of the latter individuals under the Teaching Physician Rules or Split-Shared Billing Rules).

Past, family, and social histories. Documentation of past, family, and social histories (PFSH) involves data obtained about the patient’s previous illness or medical conditions/therapies, family occurrences with illness, and relevant patient activities. An auditor credits the physician for a single comment correlated to each history for the PFSH. Using the term “noncontributory” (N/C) with any of the histories can result in downcoding. Many contractors do not allow this statement due to previous misunderstandings over its use.

  • Incomplete PFSH example: “Patient is status-post cholecystectomy in August 2013; family history N/C; patient is former smoker” (Note: “family history N/C” is not accepted by most contractors).
  • Better PFSH example: “Patient currently on Prilosec 20 mg daily; family history of Barrett’s Esophagus; no tobacco or alcohol use.”

PFSH data can also be documented by anyone, including the patient, and the physician must reference the PFSH information in his own progress note. Re-documenting the PFSH is not necessary unless a revision is required. PFSH documentation is only required for initial care services (i.e., initial hospital care, initial observation care, consultations). It is not required for subsequent care services, unless additional pertinent information that impacts care is obtained during the hospital stay.

Common Problems to Avoid

Information cannot be obtained. Some contractors will not penalize the physician for the inability to ascertain complete historical information as long as there is evidenced documentation of an attempt to obtain the information. When the physician cannot extract historical information from the patient directly and no other source is available, the physician documents that he is “unable to obtain” the history. Additionally, the physician must provide a comment to explain why the information is unobtainable (e.g. patient confused, no caregiver present) along with the available information from the limited resources (e.g. emergency medical technicians, records from previous hospitalizations at the same facility).

Previous information referenced. When referencing items from a previous encounter, be sure to include the referenced information when documentation is requested by the payer. Per CMS guidelines, the ROS and/or PFSH obtained during an earlier encounter does not need to be re-recorded if there is evidence that the physician reviewed and updated the previous information. The review and update may be documented by either describing any new ROS and/or PFSH information or noting that there has been no change in the information and noting the date and location of the earlier ROS and/or PFSH.2

Pre-op clearance and HPI deficiencies. HPI is typically not as deficient as the ROS or family history elements; however, HPI underdocumentation is mostly associated with encounters for pre-op clearance. The physician may state that “patient requires pre-op clearance for left knee repair.” In the absence of any comorbidities or acute illness, HPI documentation may be missing. The physician should remember to identify the details of the presenting problem: “Patient runs five miles daily. Knee felt unstable after running two weeks ago. Swelling and intermittent sharp pain 7/10. Patient has been taking ibuprofen daily without relief.”

Not medically necessary. Remember not to document any elements for the purpose of “getting paid.” Only document information that is clinically relevant, lends to the quality of care provided, or demonstrates the delivery of healthcare services. This prevents accusations of fraud and abuse, promotes billing compliance, and supports medical necessity for the services provided.

Every encounter, regardless of visit type, must include a CC. The physician must personally document and/or validate the CC with reference to a specific condition or symptom.

Varying levels of history. E/M services are selected based on the content of the three “key” components: history, exam, and decision-making (or visit time). If counseling and/or coordination of care does not encompass >50% of the physician’s total visit time or the service is not exclusively designated as a time-based service (e.g. critical care and discharge day management), the physician’s service time is not considered.

Documentation for each of the three key components must support the reported visit level when reporting initial hospital care and consultations (for those payers who still recognize consultation codes). Subsequent hospital care (e.g. 99233) only requires supportive documentation from two key components. Medical decision-making should be one of the two supporting components in order to demonstrate the medical necessity and nature of the presenting problem; the other supporting component can be history or exam.

Each visit category (e.g. initial hospital care or subsequent hospital care) and service level (e.g. 99221-99233) identifies corresponding documentation requirements. Failure to document any essential element in a given visit level (e.g. family history required for a comprehensive history when billing for 99222 and 99223) may result in service denial or downcoding (e.g. 99221). Be aware of what an auditor expects when reviewing patient history (see Table 1).

There are four levels of history: problem-focused, expanded problem-focused, detailed, and comprehensive. An auditor determines the number of history elements documented in the progress note (see Table 2). The history level corresponds to the lowest documented element. For example, if physician documentation includes four HPI elements, eight ROS, and a comment in each of the PFSHs, the history level is equivalent to “detailed.” The history would support initial hospital care 99221 or subsequent hospital care 99233.

Carol Pohlig is a billing and coding expert with the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, Philadelphia. She is also on the faculty of SHM’s inpatient coding course.


  1. Levinson DR. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General: Coding Trends of Medicare Evaluation and Management Services. May 2012. Available at: Accessed October 4, 2014.
  2. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 1995 Documentation Guidelines for Evaluation and Management Services. Available at: Accessed October 4, 2014.
  3. Abraham M, Ahlman J, Boudreau A, Connelly J, Levreau-Davis L. CPT 2013 Professional Edition (Current Procedural Terminology). Chicago: American Medical Association Press; 2012:4-10.
  4. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 1997 Documentation Guidelines for Evaluation and Management Services. Available at: Accessed October 4, 2014.
  5. Noridian Healthcare Solutions. Medicare Part B: Evaluation and Management Workshop Questions and Answers. Available at: Accessed on October 4, 2014.
  6. WPS Medicare Health Insurance. J5 MAC Part B: Documentation (Q&As). Available at: Accessed October 4, 2014.
  7. NHIC, Corp. Building Your Medicare Knowledge: Advanced Building Blocks. Available at:
  8. Palmetto GBA. Jurisdiction 11 Part B: History Component. Available at: Accessed October 4, 2014.
  9. Novitas Solutions. Frequently Asked Questions: Evaluation and Management Services (Part B). Available at: Accessed October 4, 2014.

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