When to code signs and symptoms

Editor’s Note: Our four-part series on common home health coding errors continues today, with a look at when home health coders should include codes for signs and symptoms. 

In general, the home health coding rule for signs and symptoms is simple enough:

     Don’t code them if they are integral to the disease or condition with which the patient has been diagnosed; do code them if they are not.

Icoding errors blog post art smaller 1f an asthma patient experiences wheezing, for example, it’s a routine symptom of asthma and should not be coded along with the asthma. If a patient with myocardial infarction experiences chest pain, a symptom routinely associated with MI, coding the MI is enough. Home health coders don’t usually code signs and symptoms, relying instead on confirmed diagnoses: first, the primary diagnosis which is the reason for the encounter, and next all co-existing conditions which have been documented.

     However, there are some limited circumstances under which it may be acceptable to code signs and symptoms. Here are two of them:

 1. There is no specific diagnosis in the medical record. Since you always code to the highest degree of certainty, and there is no certain diagnosis, it may be acceptable to code certain signs and symptoms in lieu of a diagnosis.

      An example might be a patient who has been experiencing shortness of breath and swelling to the lower extremities. The physician has added Lasix to the medication regiment but states that the patient “might have CHF.”

     “In this case, the coder cannot code ‘might haves,’ so the only option left is to code the edema and shortness of breath, as these would be the focus of the home health episode,” says Heather Calhoun, Director of Special Appeals and Project Management at HHS.

     “If a definitive diagnosis cannot be obtained when querying the M.D., or the M.D. will not verify the CHF, that is all the coder is left to do.”

2. If there IS a diagnosis in the medical record, but documented signs and symptoms are NOT integral to or associated with the confirmed diagnosis, it is acceptable to code them.

      An example might be a patient with a diagnosis of CHF who has been seen by the physician after the family reports episodes of “short term memory loss.” If the memory loss is not related to any diagnosis in the M.D. documentation, the home health coder would use “memory loss” as one of the co-morbid diagnoses.

      Note that the “memory loss” would be important to report because it impacts the patient’s ability to improve, and to implement certain interventions in meeting goals.

      Determining whether signs and symptoms are routine manifestations of a disease or condition can sometimes be tricky for coders, and may require researching a disease or condition for clarification.

       When in doubt, online coding forums can be great places to seek the opinions of more experienced coders who are usually happy to share their insight, especially if you query rarely.

       Please note that forum courtesy dictates limiting the number of questions posed, and the frequency of questioning. Keep in mind that other coders are working on their own files, too, and taking time away from their work to answer. Coders who routinely ask for forum assistance with numerous cases often find the number of replies dwindling.

Be sure to visit the HHS blog again on Wednesday, when we’ll review another common home health coding error, discussing when it is appropriate to code a patient’s history. If you missed Monday’s post, click here to read our advice for coding a vague or uncertain diagnosis.

Do you need ICD-10 training or review?
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