Practice Economics

Common Coding Mistakes Hospitalists Should Avoid


Medical decision-making (MDM) click for large version

Table 1. Visit levels and complexity3, Table 2. Medical decision-making category requirements4, Table 3. MDM example4

Medical decision-making (MDM) mistakes are common. Here are the coding and documentation mistakes hospitalists make most often, along with some tips on how to avoid them.

Listing the problem without a plan. Healthcare professionals are able to infer the acuity and severity of a case without superfluous or redundant documentation, but auditors may not have this ability. Adequate documentation for every service date helps to convey patient complexity during a medical record review. Although the problem list may not change dramatically from day to day during a hospitalization, the auditor only reviews the service date in question, not the entire medical record.

Hospitalists should be sure to formulate a complete and accurate description of the patient’s condition with an analogous plan of care for each encounter. Listing problems without a corresponding plan of care does not corroborate physician management of that problem and could cause a downgrade of complexity. Listing problems with a brief, generalized comment (e.g. “DM, CKD, CHF: Continue current treatment plan”) equally diminishes the complexity and effort put forth by the physician.

Clearly document the plan. The care plan represents problems the physician personally manages, along with those that must also be considered when he or she formulates the management options, even if another physician is primarily managing the problem. For example, the hospitalist can monitor the patient’s diabetic management while the nephrologist oversees the chronic kidney disease (CKD). Since the CKD impacts the hospitalist’s diabetic care plan, the hospitalist may also receive credit for any CKD consideration if the documentation supports a hospitalist-related care plan, or comment about CKD that does not overlap or replicate the nephrologist’s plan. In other words, there must be some “value-added” input by the hospitalist.

Credit is given for the quantity of problems addressed as well as the quality. 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. Established problems are less complex than new problems, for which a diagnosis, prognosis, or care plan has not been developed. Severity of the problem also influences complexity. A “worsening” problem is considered more complex than an “improving” problem, since the worsening problem likely requires revisions to the current care plan and, thus, more physician effort. Physician documentation should always:

  • Identify all problems managed or addressed during each encounter;
  • Identify problems as stable or progressing, when appropriate;
  • Indicate differential diagnoses when the problem remains undefined;
  • Indicate the management/treatment option(s) for each problem; and
  • Note management options to be continued somewhere in the progress note for that encounter (e.g. medication list) when documentation indicates a continuation of current management options (e.g. “continue meds”).

Considering relevant data. “Data” is organized as pathology/laboratory testing, radiology, and medicine-based diagnostic testing that contributes to diagnosing or managing patient problems. Pertinent orders or results may appear in the medical record, but most of the background interactions and communications involving testing are undetected when reviewing the progress note. To receive credit:

  • Specify tests ordered and rationale in the physician’s progress note, or make an entry that refers to another auditor-accessible location for ordered tests and studies; however, this latter option jeopardizes a medical record review due to potential lack of awareness of the need to submit this extraneous information during a payer record request or appeal.
  • Document test review by including a brief entry in the progress note (e.g. “elevated glucose levels” or “CXR shows RLL infiltrates”); credit is not given for entries lacking a comment on the findings (e.g. “CXR reviewed”).
  • Summarize key points when reviewing old records or obtaining history from someone other than the patient, as necessary; be sure to identify the increased efforts of reviewing the considerable number of old records by stating, “OSH (outside hospital) records reviewed and shows…” or “Records from previous hospitalization(s) reveal….”
  • Indicate when images, tracings, or specimens are “personally reviewed,” or the auditor will assume the physician merely reviewed the written report; be sure to include a comment on the findings.
  • Summarize any discussions of unexpected or contradictory test results with the physician performing the procedure or diagnostic study.

click for large version

Table 1. Visit levels and complexity3, Table 2. Medical decision-making category requirements4, Table 3. MDM example4

Data credit may be more substantial during the initial investigative phase of the hospitalization, before diagnoses or treatment options have been confirmed. Routine monitoring of the stabilized patient may not yield as many “points.”

Undervaluing the patient’s complexity. A general lack of understanding of the MDM component of the documentation guidelines often results in physicians undervaluing their services. Some physicians may consider a case “low complexity” simply because of the frequency with which they encounter the case type. The speed with which the care plan is developed should have no bearing on how complex the patient’s condition really is. Hospitalists need to better identify the risk involved for the patient.

Patient risk is categorized as minimal, low, moderate, or high based on pre-assigned items pertaining to the presenting problem, diagnostic procedures ordered, and management options selected. The single highest-rated item detected on the Table of Risk determines the overall patient risk for an encounter.1 Chronic conditions with exacerbations and invasive procedures offer more patient risk than acute, uncomplicated illnesses or noninvasive procedures. Stable or improving problems are considered “less risky” than progressing problems; conditions that pose a threat to life/bodily function outweigh undiagnosed problems where it is difficult to determine the patient’s prognosis; and medication risk varies with the administration (e.g. oral vs. parenteral), type, and potential for adverse effects. Medication risk for a particular drug is invariable whether the dosage is increased, decreased, or continued without change. Physicians should:

  1. Provide status for all problems in the plan of care and identify them as stable, worsening, or progressing (mild or severe), when applicable; don’t assume that the auditor can infer this from the documentation details.
  2. Document all diagnostic or therapeutic procedures considered.
  3. Identify surgical risk factors involving co-morbid conditions that place the patient at greater risk than the average patient, when appropriate.
  4. Associate the labs ordered to monitor for medication toxicity with the corresponding medication; don’t assume that the auditor knows which labs are used to check for toxicity.

Varying levels of complexity. Remember that decision-making is just one of three components in evaluation and management (E&M) services, along with history and exam. MDM is identical for both the 1995 and 1997 guidelines, rooted in the complexity of the patient’s problem(s) addressed during a given encounter.1,2 Complexity is categorized as straightforward, low, moderate, or high, and directly correlates to the content of physician documentation.

Each visit level represents a particular level of complexity (see Table 1). Auditors only consider the care plan for a given service date when reviewing MDM. More specifically, the auditor reviews three areas of MDM for each encounter (see Table 2), and the physician receives credit for: a) the number of diagnoses and/or treatment options; b) the amount and/or complexity of data ordered/reviewed; c) the risk of complications/morbidity/mortality.

To determine MDM complexity, each MDM category is assigned a point level. Complexity correlates to the second-highest MDM category. For example, if the auditor assigns “multiple” diagnoses/treatment options, “minimal” data, and “high” risk, the physician attains moderate complexity decision-making (see Table 3).

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.


CMS, focused on preventing overpayments or erroneous payments to physicians, continues to monitor E&M services deemed vulnerable to overpayment. Codes most frequently monitored for inpatient services include 99223, 99233, 99291, and 99239. Self-assessments can help to identify documentation weaknesses. Most payers use a standard audit tool and make them available to providers to incorporate in their internal educational and auditing efforts (e.g. Hospitalists should familiarize themselves with payers’ tools, as well as other information involving documentation guidelines, policies, and “FAQs” that can help improve documentation skills and justify billing levels.—CP


  1. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 1995 Documentation Guidelines for Evaluation and Management Services. Available at: Accessed July 7, 2014.
  2. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 1997 Documentation Guidelines for Evaluation and Management Services. Available at: Accessed July 7, 2014.
  3. American Medical Association. Current Procedural Terminology: 2014 Professional Edition. Chicago: American Medical Association; 2013:14-21.
  4. Novitas Solutions. Novitas Solutions documentation worksheet. Available at: Accessed July 7, 2014.

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