Dr. Ross Koppel: Another Angle on EMR-Incited Upcoding

At my Feb. 15, 2011 post "Does EHR-Incited Upcoding (Also Known as "Fraud") Need Investigation by CMS?" I explained how, based on data I received from an active ED physician, EHR's and their algorithmic "billing advice" tools were apparently inciting massive upcoding.

The upcoding was causing a huge spike in "level 4" and "level 5" determinations for ED billing when comparing 2002 data to 2008 data, with resultant billions of dollars of increased Medicare expenditure for a few extra mouse clicks. See the above post for details, as shown on the graphs below:

(E/M level increases, 2002 compared to 2008. Click to enlarge)

(Est. increased Medicare expenditures from EHR upcoding, comparing 2002 to 2008. Click to enlarge)

Another angle on EHR-incited upcoding comes from University of Pennsylvania sociologist and EHR expert Ross Koppel, PhD. His words are reproduced with his permission below.

First, Dr. Koppel was quoted in today's Wall Street Journal in an article entitled "Many Medical Bills Contain Errors That Could End Up Wrecking Your Credit Score, Here's What You Need to Know" by Jessica Silver-Greenberg:

... What's more, some health-care experts say the number of errors could jump in coming years. That's because the 2009 economic-stimulus legislation included $19 billion in spending to encourage the use of electronic health records—a major source of billing mistakes, says Ross Koppel, a sociology professor at University of Pennsylvania's Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics who has studied electronic records extensively.

Dr. Koppel adds the following commentary for HC Renewal:

With several EHRs, there's "auto-fill" for the EHR that reports on parts of the body the physician does not examine. So, for example, if the physician is a hand specialist, she/he will probably not examine the legs, head, chest, back, etc.

On many EHRs this is listed [e.g., entered by the user through clicking a form or checkbox - ed.] as "unremarkable" which in medical-speak means "I've examined these organs/body parts and found no problems."

In billing terms, that means "I've examined these parts and should be paid for a more comprehensive visit....what's called "up-coding."

It's actually dangerous for physicians because if the patient next week walks in with a major tumor that the doc should obviously have seen (had she/he examined that body part) then the physician is on the line and can get sued.

On other other hand, if the unexamined parts don't turn up in a medical case, it means the doc will make more money...with the only danger to the doc that she/he can be charged with fraud by the government and or by a payer.

So, in effect, today's EHR's, not just through algorithmic "recommendations" for upcoding but also through their template-checkbox nature, incite upcoding.

The resultant increased expenditures do not reflect more medical care provided or cognitive processes utilized, but merely a small amount of elbow, carpal and index finger activity:

Click...click...an easy way to generate billions of dollars of additional billing?

-- SS