Create Compliant Templates in Your EHR

Moving forward with implementation means your participation is vital.

If you thought the introduction of the electronic health record (EHR) would change coding, you were absolutely right. The days of sitting in the back office, appending ICD-9-CM codes to paper fee tickets and manually posting charges is, for some practices, in the distant past. Modern offices expect you to transform your coding knowledge into the fundamental tools used for EHR software development and compliance auditing. With a systematic plan, the right resources, and reasonably sophisticated EHR software, you can be a vital resource in their implementation.

Get Ahead of the Learning Curve

To participate in the development of compliant documentation templates, you must understand how an EHR is designed and how software is modified.
Overall, the EHR should interface with a billing or practice management software so patient demographics data attach to the medical record to avoid ‘wrong patient’ issues. Most EHR software is designed with pre-created templates used to capture patient medical data, document visits and procedures, order prescriptions, and document patient/provider communication—all seamlessly linked to the patient demographics. These templates are designed so providers can enter data through several methods. They can click check boxes or select radio buttons, and choose items from drop down menus to determine the information they want to document in the patient chart. The provider can type additional data within a text box, which displays this information exactly as it’s entered. Other patient data, such as chronic conditions, past medical history, and medication lists can be pre-loaded.
In some sophisticated software, templates can be set up to require some sort of action—almost like an internal email that alerts nursing staff to contact the patient regarding lab results. Other templates can be developed to order a prescription that automatically faxes to the pharmacy. These methods of selection and documentation are elements of a “user interface,” which is a behind-the-scenes mapping of how and where the information is displayed. Taking the time to learn about the behind-the-scenes default “language” that is all part of the EHR package’s user interface will help you determine whether there are options for clear and concise documentation, or if the documentation is limited to certain canned phrases and verbiage.
All EHR software arrives “out of the box” with default data lists that are used to populate the templates to drop pre-determined verbiage into a formatted document based on the provider’s selection. These data lists can include CPT® and ICD-9-CM codes, and place of service (POS) indicators, as well as more customized and editable lists such as office locations, special charges, and fee schedules. Data is typically selected through a drop-down menu.
In all cases, successful EHR implementation depends on the ability to understand, customize, test, and audit the capability and compliance of the EHR software. Coders, today, need to understand the concepts of a user interface, billing rules, and clinical documentation standards, and be able to translate coding and documentation guidelines for successful and compliant software development.

Test the EHR Before Going “Live”

A good software package will provide you with a test environment. When the practice decides to “go live” with a new EHR, there is a period during which the electronically-generated medical record should be systematically audited within a test environment to identify errors or bugs. These problems should be corrected prior to using the EHR in a “live” environment.
By comparing the computer generated notes against an approved audit tool, you can see where the software might be “double-dipping” (counting the same elements twice), pulling forward (bringing arbitrary documentation from another, unrelated note), or creating “bugs,” such as documenting both male and female system reviews for all patients. The completed EHR should meet all of the criteria for a legal medical document. This kind of testing is most effective if planned and implemented in a methodical manner, using test patients that you create, name, and run through the workflow process with varying visit types and medical scenarios.
Using a spreadsheet or database to capture and compare this analysis process is helpful, and can keep the project organized. Some scenarios to consider include:

  • Are the templates for physical examinations age/sex appropriate?
  • Are there opportunities to document all elements of the history of present illness (HPI)? The review of systems (ROS)?
  • Are the examination templates set up to record based on 1997 or 1995 guidelines?
  • Can your medical record be locked for security after a certain length of time? What is your addendum process?
  • Can you import data such as lab results that are relevant to your current note? Is your note readable? Do consecutive notes appear to be copied, or cut and pasted?
  • Do surgical/procedural templates allow for informed consent documentation?
  • Is there space to document adverse effects or complications?
  • Does your finger stick glucose lab template always default to a diabetes diagnosis? This should not be the case: Not everyone is diabetic!
  • Does your wart destruction template allow for both benign and malignant lesion reporting?

Much of this developing and testing should be handled by your practice’s information technology (IT) department, but savvy coders, such as yourself, may want to develop super-user status. You can participate in pre-implementation activities, where you act as patients while the providers learn the software. During this time, make recommendations regarding coding compliance to the physicians, as well as the IT team.

EHR Software Works Best when Customized

The features that make an EHR easy to use, such as pre-filled templates, automatic code drop, and pre-determined diagnosis codes are the very things that cause compliance concerns. Think of the EHR as a tool that has to be sharpened and honed. It’s very effective if used correctly, but you have to learn how to use it safely, or you’re going to get hurt.
Most EHR software comes with pre-loaded E/M templates, which vendors probably will tell you are of the “plug and play” variety. Information systems experts and coders know that this is not necessarily the case. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has not changed the E/M guidelines since 1997; however, the way the EHR captures data to support the levels of service has most definitely changed. Usually, the EHR configures the E/M templates in a manner similar to an audit tool, with a section for each of the key components: the chief complaint; HPI; ROS; past, family, and social history (PFSH); exam; and medical decision making (MDM). By working systematically, you and your IT staff can approach the development and customization of these templates in a way that ensures easy use and compliance within the final documentation.
Most EHR programs also have the capability to import documents. Scanning allows you to import a photo image of a document, to be stored in the patient’s chart. Establishing a direct interface between a lab or radiology department to import diagnostic results is a very efficient way to receive medical information into the patient chart. Having a consistent method of importing and cataloging these documents is important because it allows records to be easily identified and located at a later date. To meet compliance and patient care standards, all imported documentation must be reviewed and noted by the ordering physician before being stored in the electronic chart. Take it upon yourself to ensure that this is being done effectively and consistently.
Much of the custom work will be the IT department’s responsibility, with you acting as the compliance consultant. In smaller practice settings, your software vendor can be extremely helpful with the implementation process. Some EHR products offer users groups, which are online chat rooms offering a place for IT people, coders, and practice managers to post questions and discuss known issues. The bigger software companies provide seminars, conferences, and workshops on best-practice concepts and new initiatives. There is also an EHR discussion thread on the AAPC website where coders who are using the same EHR can “meet” and discuss.

Additional EHR Concerns to Address

Who Did What? Most EHRs have some “auditing” capability, where a behind-the-scenes look can identify which employee or clinician entered or edited which pieces of information. This allows you to see who is accessing the medical record (for instance, in case of privacy concerns), who is actually placing orders for medications and diagnostics, and where data entry errors might be occurring (to identify training opportunities). All EHRs should have signature and date recording ability for physicians and performing clinicians to meet the regulatory requirements of a legal medical record. This is one area where you can assist in workflow planning for compliance.
Procedure Templates: Most EHR software allows for easy documentation of office and surgical procedures. Templates should be designed to capture common elements of any given procedure, including anesthesia, informed consent, procedural elements, and follow-up instructions. When using these templates in a test environment, make sure the resulting procedure note makes sense, and your software default choices match the procedure that actually took place. For example, if your provider performs and documents a lesion excision, make sure your resulting note doesn’t document lesion destruction.
Annual Updates: Many of the EHR’s data lists, such as CPT® and ICD-9 codes, can be updated annually by the vendor, but often the vendor can provide only new codes. Frequently, the deleted and revised codes have to be edited individually and manually by you, or someone in IT, to ensure providers do not select invalid or deleted codes. One common issue in an EHR is that old diagnosis codes that are related to previous encounters remain in the patient’s list of chronic conditions, so the invalid codes can inadvertently be chosen again and again to appear on a claim form. Claim edits should be set up to prevent this from happening.
As you move forward with your implementation, other issues may present themselves. It’s critical for documentation compliance that you perform concurrent audits to review the EHR for completeness and accuracy as codes change, software is upgraded, and new providers begin to use the EHR. Having a comprehensive plan for EHR implementation that includes your participation in creating compliant EHR templates is essential. This implementation must include a comprehensive workflow evaluation to ensure that the EHR system your practice is using is configured in the best possible format as a legal medical record.

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Pam Brooks, CPC, PCS, is physician services coding supervisor with Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover, N.H.


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