Medical Economics Outpatient Practice

Prior Authorizations, Insurance Denials, and Physician Burnout

Insurance denials and insurance prior authorizations are the bane of existence for any physician who practices in an outpatient setting. The are at best an annoyance but last Friday, I had an experience that nearly made my head explode. At issue was the denial of a high resolution chest CT that I had ordered several months ago for a patient with interstitial lung disease who had deteriorating pulmonary function tests despite treatment. I wanted to determine if his interstitial lung disease was worsening to decide if his treatment needed to be changed or if he needed to be referred for a lung transplant. I entered the order into our electronic medical record with ICD-10 code J84.9 (interstitial lung disease) and typed into the “reason for the test” box that he had interstitial lung disease of uncertain cause with worsening pulmonary function tests. The patient’s insurance company contracts with a radiology test benefits management company (which I am going to call “Roadblock, Inc” so that the real company does not blacklist me) to review orders for radiology tests and then approve or deny the tests based on whether or not the tests meet evidence-based indications for that particular test. Last week, shortly before the CT was scheduled to be performed, I got an email from our office staff that the insurance company had called to tell us that Roadblock, Inc had denied the CT and then left a case reference number and the phone number at Roadblock, Inc for me to call. Here is a summary of my subsequent phone call to Roadblock, Inc:

  • 2:00 PM – I call Roadblock, Inc and am on hold for 2 minutes
  • 2:02 PM – A Roadblock, Inc customer service representative answers the call and takes down all of the information about the patient and the test that was ordered
  • 2:04 PM – She transfers me to the clinical review department. I am again placed on hold for 1 minute
  • 2:05 PM – A second customer service representative answers and again asks for the case number, patient’s name and birth date as well as my name and contact information. She informs me that the reason for denial is that the only approved indication for a high resolution chest CT is interstitial lung disease or worsening pulmonary function tests. She asks me if I would like to be transferred to the physician appeals department. I answer yes and am placed on hold for 2 minutes
  • 2:08 PM – a third customer service representative answers and I am again asked for the case number, patient name, and date of birth as well as my name and contact information. She asks me if the previous customer service representative told me why the CT was denied and I answered yes. 
  • 2:10 PM – I explained that the original order had the correct ICD-10 code for interstitial lung disease and additionally had the typed clinical information that the patient had interstitial lung disease with worsening pulmonary function tests. I pulled up the original date-and-time-stamped order from a few months earlier to confirm this and offered to fax it to her. The customer service representative stated that when the order was processed by Roadblock, Inc, that the indication for the test was not completed. I explained that the information that we sent to Roadblock, Inc included the correct ICD-10 code and the correct written indication for the test.
  • 2:13 PM – I then ask to schedule a “peer-to-peer” phone call with one of their physician reviewers. The customer service representative tells me that a peer-to-peer is not permitted for a test denial. The customer service representative acknowledged that the information that I had entered into the order and sent to Roadblock, Inc was the correct indication for a high resolution chest CT but that on the Evicor computer system, that information had not been documented and therefore the test had been denied.  
  • 2:16 PM – I asked for an appeal since the error was on the part of the Roadblock, Inc’s employee who had recorded the information that our office had sent to them. The customer service representative tells me that she is sorry but that appeals are not permitted. 
  • 2:18 PM – I tell her that I would send in a new order for the CT scan. She tells me that I am not permitted to re-order a CT when the original order is denied. She tells me that Roadblock, Inc’s policy is that I cannot order a new CT scan for a 2 month period after a denial. 
  • 2:20 PM – I ask to speak with her supervisor. She tells me that I can call the insurance company to see if they will make an exception to the denial. 
  • 2:21 PM – My head explodes and I tell the customer service representative that her company has failed this patient.

This is not a unique experience. Prior authorizations and denial appeals take up an enormous amount of physician and office staff time. A recent survey of 1,000 physicians by the American Medical Association found that 91% reported that the prior authorization process had a negative impact on patient care; 28% reported that prior authorization had resulted in delays of care that resulted in hospitalization, death, or disability; 86% reported that the prior authorization process placed a high or extremely high burden on their practice; and 88% reported that the prior authorization process has gotten worse in the past 5 years.

The Council for Affordable Quality Healthcare found that prior authorizations increased 27% between 2016 and 2019. Currently, the average physician has to do 34 prior authorizations per week and the total time cost to the physician and office staff is 14.9 hours per week devoted just to prior authorizations.

About 25 years ago, our pulmonary practice group held an all-day coding and billing session for all of the physicians. We hired a coding specialist from one of the major health insurance companies to come to teach us how to best document and code for the services we were billing with the thought that the best person to teach us about correct documentation and coding was a person from an insurance company coding department. She told us that the staff in her department were told to deny every 10th claim. If the physician appealed the denial, then they would simply approve the claim and move on. But the insurance company had found that most physicians do not bother to appeal claim denials and just write them off. By randomly denying claims, the insurance company was able to save an enormous amount of money.

Medication denials are a particular problem. Many drugs are members of a class of medications that are all relatively interchangeable for most patients. For example, statins used for high cholesterol, ACE inhibitors used for high blood pressure, and inhalers used for asthma. The insurance company will negotiate with the drug manufacturers to get the lowest price for one of the drugs in a class of medications. These drugs are then placed on the insurance company’s “formulary” of approved medications; if a patient is prescribed a drug that is not on the approved formulary, then the patient has to pay retail price for that drug out of pocket. I deal with dozens of different insurance formularies. Some insurance companies permit a computer interface with physicians’ electronic medical record so that physicians can tell right away if a medication that they are prescribing is on that insurance company’s formulary and then pick another drug from that same class if it isn’t. But many insurance companies do not permit an interface with the physician EMR. Although the physician can go to the internet and look up a formulary, most of these on-line formularies are not very user friendly and often require the physician to scroll through pages and pages of a PDF file to hunt for a drug that would be covered – this can take the physician 5-10 minutes to determine which drug is or is not covered. If a non-formulary drug is prescribed, the physician will usually get a letter in the mail that the prescribed drug is not on the insurance company’s formulary. The problem is that those letters do not tell the physician what drug in the same class is covered so the physician either has to spend time on the internet trying to determine what is covered or continue to randomly prescribe medications in that drug category until they hit on one that is covered. Furthermore, the insurance companies change their drug formularies every January and a drug that is covered one year will often not be covered the next year resulting in a flurry of denial letters being sent to physician offices all over the country every January.

Prior authorizations and denials are a great business model for insurance companies, radiology benefit management companies, and pharmacy benefit management companies. By creating a barrier to approving expensive tests such as CT scans and MRIs, they can reduce the number of these expensive tests that are actually done. By denying medications that are not on their insurance formulary, they can reduce the number of prescriptions that are filled.

The sad part of prior authorizations and denials is that most of the time, the physician can eventually successfully appeal the denial of a test or a prescribed medication, as long as the physician is persistent and dedicates the time necessary for the appeal. The net result is that these denials and prior authorizations create an enormous cost to physician practices with no real benefit to the patient. As a consequence, the American prior insurance authorization and denial system is a major contributor to the U.S. having the most expensive healthcare in the world but still lagging other countries in quality of healthcare.

A 2018 report from Harvard concluded “Physician burnout is a public health crisis that urgently demands action by health care institutions, governing bodies, and regulatory authorities. If left unaddressed, the worsening crisis threatens to undermine the very provision of care, as well as eroding the mental health of physicians across the country.” Some of the primary drivers of burnout is burdensome administrative requirements, excessive bureaucratic requirements, and consequences of electronic medical records. Insurance denials and prior authorizations fit squarely into these drivers of burnout.

Ironically, the payers that generally pose the least denials and prior authorizations are Medicare and Medicaid. I am generally a strong proponent of free market economic systems but in this case, the American health insurance free market has resulted in a broken system that is increasing healthcare costs to Americans and contributing to physician burnout.

January 25, 2020

Outpatient Practice Physician Finances

Should Doctors Bill For Phone Calls?

Beginning in January 2019, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) rolled out G2012 – a new CPT code for “Brief communication technology-based service (virtual check-in)”. This code can be used for patient phone calls as well as electronic medical record patient portal contacts initiated by a patient. For the first time, doctors can charge for patient phone calls – but should they?

The details behind G2012 are that the physician cannot have seen the patient for a regular billable encounter for 7 days prior to the phone/portal encounter or for 24 hours after the phone/portal encounter. The medical discussion should be between 5 – 10 minutes and has to be between the patient and the doctor/NP/PA and not the office staff. The patient has to give verbal consent acknowledging that the telephone/portal visit will be billed. The patient must have been seen by the physician or a physician in the physician’s group within the past 3 years. This CPT code is compensated at 0.41 RVUs ($14.78 for Medicare).

When Medicare released its plans to roll out G2012 a year ago, physicians all over the country breathed a sigh of relief and said “…finally!”. Every physician who is responsible for direct patient care in the outpatient setting knows the burden of patient phone calls. On a typical Monday, I have 15-20 phone messages in my electronic medical record “in basket”. On a Monday after a holiday weekend, that number can increase to 25-30 and it is not uncommon for me to spend 1-2 hours on those Mondays just returning phone calls. It has been estimated that the average primary care practice gets 21 calls per day for every 1,000 patients in the practice.

There are additional CPT codes that are designated for phone calls of various lengths of time for physicians (99441, 99442, and 99443) as well as for advanced practice providers such as NPs or PAs (98966, 98967, and 98968). However, Medicare does not currently reimburse these codes so they are generally not used unless a commercial insurance company recognizes them. Similarly, there is a CPT code for email responses to patients for physicians (99444) and advanced practice providers (98969) but these are also not currently reimbursed by Medicare.

Some phone calls are entirely legitimate, for example, a person who gets an asthma flare when traveling out of town and needs advice and a new inhaler. But some phone calls are simply because a patient does not want to come into the office or a patient wants to avoid an office visit co-pay. In these situations, the physician is providing free healthcare to the patient. And that equates to uncompensated physician time as well as malpractice vulnerability. There are pros and cons to billing for phone calls.


  1. It can reduce overall healthcare costs. The office overhead expense associated with a face-to-face office visit can be considerable. As opposed to a regular office visit, there is no need for registration staff, nursing staff, office space use, and checkout staff with a phone call.
  2. It allows more flexible use of the physician’s time. The doctor can return that call at a time when he/she has a few free minutes rather than committing the doctor to a fixed appointment time for an office visit.
  3. It is more convenient for the patient. Having a medical problem managed by a phone call can obviate the cost of travel to the doctor’s office and the time involved in getting to and from the doctor’s office. For the patient who is a student or who is working, it also obviates the need to take time away from classes or time off work to go to the doctor’s office.
  4. It improves doctor satisfaction. Physicians have provided free medical care over the phone ever since phones came into existence. Knowing that you are getting paid something (even if not very much) can eliminate that sense of being taken advantage of that you otherwise would have. From my perspective, this is one of the most important reasons to bill for patient phone calls.
  5. It can create a barrier for patients who abuse the system. Every physician who practices outpatient medicine has had the last minute cancelation by a patient who then calls the office an hour later asking if the doctor can call them back and manage by phone the medical problem that they were supposed to come in for. The physician still has to pay the overhead cost of that no-show on the schedule in terms of the nurse’s salary, office rent, the receptionist’s salary, and the the utility bills not to mention the physician’s own salary. Every physician also has the patient who sends lengthy messages via the EMR patient portal on a daily basis or calls multiple times a week. The awareness that the patient (or at least their insurance) will be billed for those calls can reduce abuse.
  6. It encourages use of email communications through patient portals. Phone calls create more overhead expense than emails. There is the time the office staff takes to answer and transcribe patient messages, the time it takes someone to answer the phone when the physician calls back, the time it takes for the patient to actually get on the phone, the time it takes the physician to document the call in the medical record, etc. An email communication eliminates much of that overhead cost of office staff and physician time. Furthermore, when the patient has the doctor on the phone (as opposed to an email message), it often results in additional medical questions that follow the comment: “Oh, and while I have you on the phone…” and this adds additional time as well as complexity of medical decision making. I can answer 3 patient emails in the time it takes me to return 1 patient phone call.


  1. The patient has a co-pay. Although the reality is that at $2.50, it is a bargain. Nevertheless, for patients used to getting free medical advice over the phone, the co-pay can be surprising.
  2. The patient has to give verbal permission/acknowledgement that the phone call will be billed. The easiest way to do this is to incorporate scripting into the nurse or office staff who initially answers the phone and starts the phone message.
  3. Phone calls do not pay much. The cost of your revenue cycle department to submit and collect the phone call bill may be nearly the $14.78 you will be paid by Medicare for the phone call.
  4. It is not usually covered by commercial insurance. Usually, it takes commercial insurance companies a year or two to catch up to new CPT codes introduced by Medicare. Currently, few insurance companies cover phone calls so the patient may be charged the full amount. This can result in patient dissatisfaction (although it can be a deterrent to patients who abuse phone availability).
  5. The phone call must be for analysis or decision making that requires the physician. In other words, you should not be billing for a patient phone call that is simply to request to reschedule an upcoming office visit. It is the physician’s time that must be > 5 minutes and not the nurse’s time or the office staff’s time.
  6. The phone call must be at least 5 minutes. It only takes 1-2 minutes to send in a prescription refill and so it would be difficult to justify billing for a phone call simply to request a refill. However, for a patient with a COPD exacerbation, by the time the doctor reviews the patient’s past history in the chart, takes an interval history over the phone, checks for allergies, reviews the current medication list for potential drug interactions, sends a prescription for an antibiotic and prednisone to the pharmacy, and then documents the telephone encounter, it almost always takes at least 5 minutes. Be sure that the time spent on the encounter is documented in the medical record. Because Medicare auditors can audit time stamps in the electronic medical record, the amount of time between the physician initially opening the telephone encounter in the EMR until the time the physician closes that encounter must be > 5 minutes.
  7. It creates a disincentive for the patient to come into the office. Although it is true that you can practice a lot of medicine over the phone or over the internet, sometimes a physical examination is essential, even if just to get an accurate set of vital signs. Moreover, it becomes more difficult to arrange a needed EKG, a pulmonary function test, a chest x=ray, or blood tests when you are managing a patient over the phone as opposed to the patient being in the office where those tests are readily available in the office. If patients believes that they can get just as good of medical care with a phone call as they can by a face-to-face office visit, then they may stop coming into the office. Not only can this have the potential to jeopardize high quality care, but since the reimbursement for telephone calls is so low compared to an office visit, physicians who do nothing but phone calls all day long will soon go out of business.

When used appropriately, billing for phone calls is a win-win-win. The patient wins by getting their medical problem addressed without having to take the time involved in going to the doctor’s office or the emergency room. The insurance company wins because that $14.78 phone call can often avoid a much more expensive trip to the ER or an urgent care facility. The doctor wins because she/he now gets paid at least something with the psychological benefit to the doctor being worth considerably more than the financial benefit.

December 1, 2019

Emergency Department Inpatient Practice Outpatient Practice

Suicide Risk Assessment

Suicide is the master thief. He steals from our family, from our friends, and from those that we admire. These are the faces of some of the lives that he has stolen. Although we have greater fear of his brother homicide, suicide takes more lives each year than homicide. Sometimes, suicide slips into our homes after we’ve feared him, after we thought we locked the doors and closed the windows to keep him out. Sometimes, he catches us off guard and we wake up in the morning and find that he’s stolen a life when we least expected it. He doesn’t discriminate by age or race or gender. He’ll strike the rich and the poor, the famous and the unknown, the strong and the weak. He has preyed on men and women for as long as humans have walked on the earth. Many people turn to him hoping that he can relieve their pain but all together too often, the pain goes on just as intensely in those who are left behind. Sometimes he whispers his intentions in our ears before he comes but all too often, we just don’t hear him or we don’t understand what he is saying to us. As physicians, whether we are primary care providers, emergency room physicians, specialists, or hospitalists, we are often in the best position to hear those whispers and to identify patients who are suicidal early on, when intervention can save lives.

Suicide is an enormous public health problem in the United States. It is the 10th leading cause of death in our country and the 2nd leading cause of death in persons age 10 – 34 years old. One American dies by suicide every 11 minutes. But this is not just a U.S. problem. In fact, the United States has just the 37th highest suicide rate in the world, led by Greenland which has the highest suicide rate at 83 per 100,000 population.

There is a gender paradox to suicide: in the United States, women are 3 times more likely to attempt suicide than men but men are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than women. Part of the reason is in the gender differences in method of suicide. Men most commonly use guns and women most commonly use poisoning – firearms are considerably more effective as a means of death than poisoning. Overall, guns account for 50% of all U.S. suicides followed by poisoning at 14%, suffocation at 28%, and miscellaneous other methods at 8%.

There are racial differences in suicide with caucasians having the highest suicide rate at 15.85 per 100,000 population followed by native Americans at 13.42, African Americans at 6.61, and Asian Americans at 6.59 per 100,000. Western states and Alaska have the highest suicide rate. Suicide is increasing – in 2001, the U.S. suicide rate was 10.7 per 100,000 population but by 2017, it was up to 14.0 per 100,000 population – a 30% increase in just a decade and a half.

45% of people who die by suicide saw their primary care physician within a month prior to their death. So what can we do in our office practices and our emergency rooms to identify those patients at risk for suicide and get them the psychiatric care that can save their lives? Fortunately, there are easy assessment tools that we can use that will help identify at-risk patients. There are many suicide screening questionnaires available – two that are commonly used in healthcare settings are the ED-SAFE and the Columbia screening tools.

The ED-SAFE tool (click on the attached images to enlarge) was originated as a National Institutes of Mental Health study performed at 8 emergency departments in the United States to determine the impact of suicide screening in emergency departments. It is available free of charge at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center website. It consists of two parts. The first part is the Patient Safety Screener (PSS-3) which consists of 3 questions and can be administer by nurses doing triage in the emergency department. Patients screening positive on the PSS-3 are then asked questions from the second part which is the ED-SAFE Patient Secondary Screener (ESS-3) which consists of 6 additional questions. The responses to the ESS-3 will stratify patients into (1) negligible risk, (2) low risk, (3) moderate risk, or (4) high risk. The risk categories then provide mitigation and recommended care for patients such as 1:1 observation and use of ligature-resistant rooms.

The Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale (click on the attached image to enlarge) was created by Columbia University, the University of Philadelphia, and the University of Pittsburgh with sponsorship by the National Institutes of Mental Health. It is available on-line free of charge at the CSSRS website. It was designed to identify those patients at risk of suicide in general settings and healthcare setting and has been endorsed by the CDC, FDA, NIH, Department of Defense, and other organizations. Based on patients responses to 6 different questions, there are recommendations for either (1) behavioral health referral at discharge, (2) behavioral health consult and consider patient safety precautions, or (3) psychiatric consultation and patient safety precautions.

These screening tools are the first step but frequently, a more detailed suicide assessment is necessary and this may require a more nuanced history from the patient. Major risk factors for completed suicide include:

  1. Prior suicide attempts
  2. Family history of suicidal behavior
  3. Mental illness, especially mood disorders
  4. Alcohol or drug abuse
  5. Access to lethal means of suicide (especially firearms)

There are other risk factors to consider as well:

  1. Caucasian
  2. Male
  3. Divorce or significant loss
  4. Traumatic brain injury
  5. Physicians
  6. Prisoners
  7. History of sexual abuse
  8. Recent psychiatric hospitalization
  9. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  10. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender
  11. Self-injurious behavior

But in addition to risks, there are also protective factors that can sometimes offset suicide risks for individual patients. These protective factors can often make the difference between a patient being at moderate risk or high risk of suicide:

  1. Family
  2. Pets
  3. The person’s individual morals
  4. Religious faith

Suicide assessment is not just the purview of the psychiatrist. It is up to all of us: emergency medicine physicians, primary care physicians, hospitalists, and specialists. In an era when a hip replacement surgery costs $32,000 and immunotherapy for lung cancer with the drug nivolumab costs $150,000/year, we could save thousands of lives at the cost of just asking a few questions.

November 9, 2019

Outpatient Practice

Making Wound Care Work

Hospital wound care clinics are one of those unheralded parts of healthcare. As our population ages, gets more obese, and has more diabetes, chronic wounds are only going to become more common and having a location within the hospital system that can provide a comprehensive approach to healing wounds is important today but will be even more important tomorrow.

A lot of wound care is general medicine

Many hospital leaders think of wound care as being a part of surgery. And it is true that surgical management is an important part of a comprehensive wound care program. However, healing wound really requires optimizing the patient’s medical conditions:

  1. Controlling diabetes
  2. Smoking cessation
  3. Nutrition optimization
  4. Improving blood flow
  5. Controlling infection

Therefore, physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants who are trained in diabetes management, tobacco treatment counseling, nutrition, and treatment of infections are frequently in the best position to help optimize the patient’s ability to heal wounds. In other words, wound care is a perfect fit for general internists and family physicians.

Wound care does not mean “wound stare”

In order to really heal wounds, it is necessary to debride dead tissue. It is not enough to simply look at a wound every week without doing any intervention – the the patient’s regular primary care physician can already do that. A study in JAMA Dermatology showed that for 321,744 wounds at 525 wound centers in the United States, about 70% of wounds healed and required a median number of 2 debridements per wound. Wounds that were debrided more frequently healed faster and patients who were seen at least weekly in the wound centers had better outcomes.

Hyperbaric oxygen

Hyperbaric oxygen treatment uses a hyperbaric chamber where 100% oxygen is delivered under high pressure. These are body-sized tube-like chambers that the patient can lay in, typically for periods of 60 – 90 minutes at a time. Hyperbaric oxygen can promote wound healing by promoting angiogenesis and fibroblast proliferation. Patients return for repeated hyperbaric treatments as the wound heals. This requires a hyperbaric technician (often a respiratory therapist or EMT) to monitor the patient and manage the hyperbaric “dives”. Hyperbaric oxygen has been demonstrated to be effective in radiation injuries, osteoradionecrosis, osteomyelitis, threatened skin flaps, and diabetic ulcers. Generally 12-15% of would care patients benefit by hyperbaric oxygen treatments.

Wound care nurses

Wound care is more than just the doctors. Having wound care nurses who are trained and experienced in wound care is essential to a high-functioning wound care center. These are truly nurse specialists – it is not sufficient to use general outpatient nurses from medical or surgical clinics. Although a physician/NP may spend 10-15 minutes with each patient, the entirety of that patient’s visit is typically 45-60 minutes when vital signs, positioning, dressing removal, wound cleansing, patient education, and wound photography is factored in.

Sufficient space to practice in

Most primary care offices are set up with 2-3 exam rooms per physician. An effective wound center needs much more, typically 4-6 rooms per practitioner, since a lot of the actual care of the patient is actually done by the wound nurses rather than the physicians. Additionally, there needs to be a room large enough to co-locate 2-3 hyperbaric oxygen chambers so that a single hyperbaric technician can oversee multiple chambers at one time. The rooms need to be large enough to accommodate gurneys since many patients are non-ambulatory. Because wound care requires a lot of supplies, there has to be abundant storage space.

Staying financially viable

Wound centers should be able to at least break-even financially and most should be able to maintain a positive margin. However, to do so, there has to be more than just evaluation and management (E/M) billings. Wound care centers have a higher overhead than a typical primary care or medical specialty clinic given the higher nursing staffing and the higher equipment & supply costs. Therefore, a wound center that relies on E/M billing only will lose money. This is where hyperbaric oxygen treatments and debridements can help maintain sufficient income to offset the loses that would be incurred from E/M visits alone. Therefore financial viability requires a balance between E/M visits and hyperbaric/debridement services. Fortunately, since those hyperbaric treatments and the debridement procedures also improve patient outcomes, it is a win-win, for both the hospital and the patient. And, because hyperbaric treatments and debridements are also financially beneficial for the doctors, it is actually a win-win-win all the way around.

From the physician (or NP/PA) standpoint, there is strong incentive to participate in wound care in terms work RVU generation. The table below lists the common services and procedures performed in wound care (the dollar amounts are the Medicare reimbursable for 2019 in Ohio).

The most common procedure at most wound centers is simple debridement (99597) and skin & subcutaneous tissue debridement (11042). Tobacco cessation is an often-overlooked service in wound care since many patients with chronic wounds are smokers and it is easy to spend at least 3 minutes discussing smoking cessation strategies with the patient, often while doing a debridement.

Hyperbaric oxygen oversight is associated with a relatively large number of work RVUs (2.11) and is billed per treatment. This is different than the facility bill for hyperbaric oxygen which is billed for every 15 minutes of time that the patient is in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber. A patient who is in the chamber for 60 minutes is billed 4 units by the hospital (facility) and 1 unit of 99183 by the physician (or NP/PA). Since hyperbaric treatment oversight generally occurs at the same time that the physician is seeing patients in the wound center, this allows for a surprisingly large number of work RVUs to be generated in a single day of outpatient care.

So, how does wound care compare to regular outpatient practice for a family physician or internist? Assume that the primary care physician is in the office all day seeing level III return visits every 20 minutes. That equates to 23.28 work RVUs or 34.56 total RVUs ($1,217 in Medicare reimbursable dollars). If that physician is working in a wound clinic and doing 1 subcutaneous debridement for every 2 patients plus supervising 4 hyperbaric oxygen treatments, then this adds up to 43.84 work RVUs, 68.16 total RVUs, and $3,163 in Medicare reimbursement! In other words, wound care is one of the most lucrative things a family physician or general internist can do and can be a great way to supplement a traditional primary care practice.

Limb salvage

Inadequately treated foot and ankle wounds often result in osteomyelitis and leg amputations. A major goal of wound care is preventing amputations by “salvaging” the leg. Ideally, this requires a coordinated multidisciplinary approach including primary care physicians (or NPs/PAs), vascular surgeons, infectious disease specialists, and podiatrists. By making the wound center a “one-stop-shop” where the patient with a foot ulcer or wound can see multiple specialists, the care can be optimized and give that wound the best chance to heal without having to resort to amputation.

A natural fit for podiatrists

In most wound centers, diabetic foot ulcers are a major indication for services. This fits perfectly with podiatrists’ scope of practice. In Ohio, one limitation is that podiatrists cannot oversee or bill for hyperbaric oxygen treatments (although nurse practitioners can). An additional advantage that podiatrists have over other practitioners is that they are surgeons who spend a significant amount of their time in the operating room. In other words, the podiatrist has one foot in the ambulatory clinic and one foot in the OR (so to speak) which can facilitate comprehensive care of those foot wounds that require more debridement or surgical care than can be done in the wound center and which require surgical debridement in the operating room.

A multi-disciplinary approach

A high-functioning and effective wound center needs to have easy access to consultation by many types of physicians. Although the main providers responsible for the regular wound care visits may be general internists, family physicians, or nurse practitioners, there are a whole group of specialists whose availability is necessary for comprehensive care of the wound. These specialists may not necessarily practice in the wound center but there needs to be easy access to them, ideally in same facility, such as a hospital outpatient building. These include: plastic surgeons, podiatrists, orthopedic surgeons, vascular surgeons, infectious disease specialists, dermatologists, and endocrinologists. Other healthcare providers needed on-site include physical therapists, orthotists/prostesthetists, nutritionists, radiology services, and occupational therapists.

In summary, a comprehensive approach to wound care is an increasingly necessary part of the overall care provided by hospitals. To be effective, a wound center requires a considerable financial investment and then needs to maintain a coordinated multidisciplinary group of healthcare providers to optimize wound healing rates. Fortunately, under current Medicare reimbursement rates, wound care is financially attractive to physicians, particularly general internists and family physicians.

October 12, 2019

Outpatient Practice

Telomeres And Pulmonary Fibrosis

My stepfather was the quintessential short telomere syndrome patient. His hair turned gray in high school, his father died of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, his sister died of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, and then he too died of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, complicated by bone marrow failure from myelodysplasia. Last month, I attended an international conference on telomeres in lung transplant and the information from that conference has profound implications for treating our patients with these conditions.

Telomeres are repeating sequences of the DNA nucleotides, TTAGGG, that are on the ends of our chromosomes and serve to protect the genes inside those chromosomes from damage, kind of like how the plastic caps on your shoelace protect the shoelace from unraveling and becoming damaged.

We are all born with fairly long telomere segments at the end of our chromosomes but then as we age, our telomeres shorten, presumably making the genes underneath these chromosomes more more fragile and subject to damage. Thus, our telomeres start off about 11 kilobases when we are born but by age 80, they have shortened by two-thirds, to 4 kilobases.

The reason that we lose these repeating TTAGGG sequences is that when our chromosomes divide, about 50-100 base pairs of telomere DNA is lost from the end of one of the two chromosomes because of the way that a chromosome divides and then re-builds new twin strands of DNA to form the 2 new chromosomes.

Our cells can restore these lost telomeres by using a protein complex called “telomerase” that adds TTAGGG nucleotide groups to the ends of our chromosomes. But if there is a genetic abnormality in one of this group of proteins, then telomerase does not work properly and cannot fully restore the telomeres to their previous length. Thus, with each chromosomal division of mitosis, the telomeres get a little shorter. Telomeres are akin to a “molecular clock” in our cells and some people have postulated that if we can maintain normal telomere lengths, that we may be able to avoid the scourge of aging, in other words, create a Fountain of Youth. Although it is not clear if this is possible, it does appear prematurely shortened telomeres due to an abnormal telomerase protein gene results in the opposite, in other words, a “Fountain of Age”.

A patient with one of these abnormal genes will have telomeres that are shorter than normal people of their same age. This results in “short telomere syndromes”. In adults, the main short telomere syndromes are:

  1. Familial idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis
  2. Cirrhosis
  3. Aplastic anemia
  4. Myelodysplasia
  5. Prematurely gray hair

There are two ways to measure telomere length: a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method and a fluorescent in situ hybridization (flow-FISH) method. The flow-FISH method is considerably more accurate than the PCR method. People can get a take-home telomere PCR test done essentially over-the-counter for about $100 through internet DNA companies. The flow-FISH method is only available at a few university laboratories, requires a physician order, and costs $400-800. I send my patients’ blood to be tested at one of these labs that use the flow-FISH method. The length of telomeres that indicates a short telomere syndrome is unknown but when the length is less than the lowest 1st percentile, I consider it highly likely. Since my clinical practice is primarily patients with interstitial lung diseases (including idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis), I end up seeing a number of these patients. Here is a telomere length test result on one of my patients with familial idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, cirrhosis, and pancytopenia from a hypocellular bone marrow:

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis patients with short telomeres are different

There are some important differences in patients with familial idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and short telomeres compared to everyone else with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. First, they do poorly with immunosuppressives. In the past, we used to use medications that suppressed the immune system to treat idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, thinking (incorrectly) that inflammation was the genesis of the lung scarring that characterizes the disease. A number of years ago, there was a study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health comparing a treatment with the immunosuppressive medications azathioprine and prednisone with placebo. It turned out that the patients who got azathioprine or prednisone did a lot worse than those getting placebo. Recently, researchers went back and looked at stored blood samples of the patients who were in this study and it turns out that only those patients with short telomeres did poorly with immunosuppressive medications – patients with normal telomeres had the same outcome whether they received immunosuppressive medications or placebo.

Second, these patients do poorly after lung transplant. They are more prone to developing low white blood cell counts, presumably from being more susceptible to side effects of immunosuppressive medications. Also, they are more prone to getting devastating infections with cytomegalovirus (CMV) and aspergillus. Patients with short telomeres who get lung transplants can develop myelodysplasia or cirrhosis after lung transplant and those with liver transplants can develop myelodysplasia or pulmonary fibrosis after liver transplant.

More Questions Than Answers

Our understanding of short telomere syndromes and how to best medically manage these patients is still in its infancy. There is much that we do not yet know. For example:

  1. Which patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis should undergo telomere length testing? Currently, I limit testing to those patients with a family history of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis who also have a personal or family history of premature graying of the hair, unexplained cirrhosis, myelodysplasia, or unexplained cytopenia. Telomere length testing is not widely available and not always covered by insurance. If it only cost $25 and insurance covered it, I would probably order it on all of my patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. In addition, there may be other lung diseases associated with short telomeres. For example, pleuropulmonary fibroelastosis appears to be associated with short telomeres.
  2. Which patients with cirrhosis should undergo telomere length testing? NASH (non-alcoholic steato-hepatitis, aka fatty liver) is the most rapidly growing cause of cirrhosis due to the epidemic of obesity and diabetes in the United States. It seems like whenever there is no obvious cause of cirrhosis (such as hepatitis C or alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency), then patients get labeled as having NASH cirrhosis by default. Many patients who carry a diagnosis of NASH cirrhosis likely have liver disease due to short telomeres.
  3. Should every patient with short telomeres be referred for genetic testing? Genetic testing is usually done in conjunction with genetic counseling by trained genetic counselors. Unfortunately, these counselors are in short supply and are mainly associated with pediatric hospitals and cancer hospitals. Furthermore, genetic testing is not cheap and typically costs around $800; most insurance companies will not cover it or will only cover it after a lot of physician effort doing denial appeals. The results of genetic testing in short telomere syndromes can be difficult to interpret – these syndromes can be associated with abnormal genes such as TERT and TERC but these genetic abnormalities can also be seen in some otherwise normal people.
  4. Should telomere length testing be done in all patients prior to transplant? One of the basic tenets of transplantation is to offer it to those patients who will most benefit by transplant. Since some studies indicate that patients with short telomeres have worse outcomes after transplant, should this affect their transplant eligibility? Could short telomeres be a relative contraindication to transplant?
  5. Should transplant patients with short telomeres get different immunosuppression regimens? Since it appears that patients with short telomeres do poorly with immunosuppressive medications, it may be that they need to have reduced doses of these medications when used to prevent transplant rejection. Or perhaps there are some immunosuppression regimens that are safer than others in patients with short telomeres. Once again, at this time, we just do not know.
  6. Should patients with short telomeres get combined lung and liver transplants? These patients are prone to getting both pulmonary fibrosis and cirrhosis and not infrequently does cirrhosis become apparent only after lung transplant for pulmonary fibrosis and vice versa. At the least, patients with known short telomeres undergoing liver transplant should probably be screened for interstitial lung disease and those undergoing lung transplant should be screened for cirrhosis. Most combined lung/liver transplants in the United States are done in patients with cystic fibrosis. Many centers have found that combined lung/liver transplant in other patients has a high mortality rate. One has to wonder whether a lot of these non-cystic fibrosis patients who have had combined lung/liver transplant actually had undiagnosed short telomere syndromes.
  7. Should patients with short telomeres undergoing transplant get a bone marrow biopsy? This is not part of the normal work-up for patients undergoing either lung or liver transplant. But the development of myelodysplasia or it malignant cousin, acute myelogenous leukemia, can be devastating in the post-transplant period. Clues to subclinical myelodysplasia can include unexplained macrocytosis (increased MCHC), leukopenia, or thrombocytopenia. No transplant physician likes a hematologic surprise after transplant.

One of the simultaneously frustrating and exciting things about medicine is that just when we think that we know everything, we realize that we don’t. Short telomere syndromes epitomize this axiom – clearly, we have much more to learn.

October 2, 2019

Inpatient Practice Outpatient Practice

Influenza Always Gets The Last Word

I am on this earth because of influenza. This is the 100th year anniversary of the influenza epidemic of 1918 that infected 1/3 of the word’s population and killed 1 out of every 10 people infected. One of those people was my grandmother’s first husband. She was a nurse at a hospital in Durham, North Carolina and after her husband’s death, she met a physician fresh out of medical school, my grandfather. So, if the influenza epidemic had not have occurred, she and my grandfather would never have married and I never would have been born.

All told in 1918, 675,000 Americans died of influenza; that works out to 1 out of every 150 citizens. It was particularly lethal for young persons with the result that the U.S. life expectancy dropped from 49 years to 37 years for men and from 54 years to 42 years for women. The influenza strain that swept the world in 1918 was H1N1, the same strain that caused the 2009 pandemic of influenza that also seemed to preferentially kill young adults.

In 2009, 12,000 people in the United States and a half million people worldwide died of influenza. The problem in 2009 was that the strain of H1N1 that emerged was one that had not circulated in humans for decades – about 1/3 of people over age 65 years had antibodies to it from past infection but few young adults had ever been exposed to H1N1 and thus few young people had any immunity at all. Most years, 80% of influenza deaths are in people over age 65 but in 2009, 80% of deaths were in people under age 65. The H1N1 pandemic was therefore notable not for the total number of deaths (which was actually rather low) but for the fact that most of the deaths occurred in young adults. Even in non-pandemic years, influenza kills thousands of Americans. For example, last year, the CDC estimates that 80,000 Americans died of influenza and its complications, the most deaths in 4 decades.

As of December 22, 2018, the epidemiology of this influenza season (red line in this graph from the CDC) is falling in-between that of the 2016-2017 season and the 2017-2018 season. Most of the influenza being seen this year is once again the influenza A H1N1 strain with a smattering of H3N2 and influenza B. The flu claimed its first celebrity of the season this week when 26-year-old Fox News commentator, Bre Payton, died the day after developing influenza.

Yet still there are people who fear influenza vaccinations and refuse to get a simple and inexpensive flu shot that can save their lives. Here are some of the reasons for not getting a flu shot that I hear from my own patients:

  1. “I always get the flu every time I get a flu shot.” It is impossible to get the flu from a flu shot as there is no live virus in the vaccine. You are no more likely to get the flu from a flu shot as you are to get pregnant from taking a birth control pill. Yet nevertheless, more than half of parents believe that their child can contract the flu from a vaccine.
  2. “I don’t need a flu shot because I never get the flu.” This is like saying that you don’t need to wear a seatbelt because you’ve never been in a car accident. These people probably have had the flu but just didn’t realize it and attributed their symptoms to a cold or other illness. No human in innately immune from influenza. If you inhale a bunch of influenza viruses, then you are going to get the flu.
  3. “I don’t want a flu shot because it causes autism.” Yes, and the earth is flat, unicorns are real, and the tooth fairy plays poker with Elvis and the Easter bunny every Saturday night. Conspiracy theorists love this one. 20 years ago, in 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a paper in the journal, The Lancet, suggesting that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine was linked to childhood developmental disturbances. It turned out that Wakefield was funded by attorneys who were suing the vaccine manufacturer for allegedly causing autism. Wakefield was later found guilty of fraud, he lost his license to practice medicine, and the journal retracted his article. But the myth lived on and in 2005, journalist David Kirby published the book Evidence of Harm – Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy that alleged that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism. That same year, class action attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. wrote an article in the Huffington Post making the same allegation (presumably setting himself up to win the mother of all class action lawsuits). Celebrities bought into this, most notably actor Charlie Sheen and former Playboy playmate, Jenny McCarthy, who have become the voices of anti-vaccine activism. Most influenza vaccines do not contain any thimerosal (the preservative that contains mercury). Even those that do contain thimerosal have the same amount of mercury as is in about 4 oz of canned tuna HOWEVER, thimerosal is broken down in our bodies as ethylmercury whereas fish contains methylmercury – ethylmercury is relatively harmless compared to methylmercury. The science is very strong: vaccines do not cause autism.
  4. “I don’t need a flu shot because last year I got one and still got the flu.” Yes, it is true that influenza vaccines are not 100% effective in preventing the flu. However, by creating protective antibodies against influenza, your body will be able to fight it off better so that even if you get the flu, it will be a milder case and you will be less likely to die. A study this year by the CDC found that patients who were admitted to the hospital with influenza and had gotten a flu shot spent four fewer days in the hospital, were 37% less likely to be admitted to the ICU, and were 2-5 times less likely to die compared to those patients who had not received a flu shot.
  5. “If I go outside in the cold and wet air, I’ll get the flu whether or not I get a flu shot.” Influenza is not an environmental microorganism, it lives in people and is transmitted by people. You cannot get the flu (or a common cold) by going outside when the temperature is low or when it is raining. In fact, if you spent all of your time outdoors in flu season, you’d be less likely to get influenza than if you are inside a building in close contact with other people who have the flu.
  6. “I always wait until December to get my flu shot so that it will kick in when the flu seasons hits.” Although it is true that antibody levels will peak several weeks after getting an influenza vaccine, a person cannot predict when they are going to be exposed to the virus in any given year. Getting a flu shot on Monday will not do much good if you are exposed to influenza on Wednesday. A person is better off getting the vaccine as early as possible in the flu season, ideally before the end of October. That being said, it is not too late to get vaccinated, even in January or February, as influenza usually continues to circulate in the United States until March or April each year.
  7. “I don’t want to get a flu shot because I might be pregnant.” If I only had one dose of the flu vaccine in my office, I would save it for a pregnant woman. There is no risk to vaccinating pregnant women and in fact, in the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, pregnant women were among those who were most likely to die when infected with the virus.
  8. “I don’t want a flu shot because I might get Guillian-Barré syndrome.” Every year, 3,000 – 6,000 Americans get Guillian-Barré syndrome (GBS) but every year, 10,000,000 – 50,000,000 Americans get influenza. The vast majority of GBS is not related at all to influenza. However, in 1976, the swine flu vaccine did have an increase risk of GBS with the result that one out of every 10,000 people vaccinated developed GBS. Since that time, the increase in GBS has been about 1 case for every 1 million influenza vaccines. The mortality rate of GBS is 2.8% and the mortality rate of influenza is about 0.16%. If you do the math, there are about 150 influenza vaccine-related cases of GBS in the U.S. each year with about 4 of these patients dying. Therefore, you are about 10,000 times more likely to die of influenza if you are not vaccinated than you are to die of GBS if you are vaccinated. As a general rule, I am not a gambler but I’l take the 10,000:1 odds any day.
  9. “I can’t take the flu shot because I’m allergic to eggs.” Because many influenza vaccines are grown in eggs, these vaccines can contain a tiny amount of egg protein. Nevertheless, the CDC recommends that people with egg allergies should still get influenza vaccinations. Patients with anaphylaxis from eggs should be observed in a medical setting after getting a flu shot. However, studies of over 500 patients with anaphylaxis from eggs and who received influenza vaccines found that none of these people developed a serious reaction from the vaccine. People who can eat cooked eggs are very unlikely to have any reaction to influenza vaccines. For those people who are still afraid of the influenza vaccine because of fears of egg allergy, there is a recombinant influenza vaccine (Flublok) that does not contain any egg protein.
  10. “Flu shots are too expensive.” Most insurance plans cover influenza vaccination and if a person without insurance goes to the local pharmacy, that person will pay about $40 to get it out of pocket. On the other hand, we spend about $10 billion per year in the United States on direct costs of flu-related illness and have another $16 billion per year in lost earnings from flu-related illness. That works out to each case of influenza costing about $530. So, instead of looking at the flu shot as costing you $40 each year, look at it as saving you $490 each year.

At the time of writing this blog post, influenza is already widespread in many states. In the next few weeks, my hospital’s nursing units and ICU will be full of patients with influenza-related illness, and some of them will die. Those patients who survive the ICU are always the first ones to ask for a flu shot the next year. But for those who die, like Bre Payton, influenza always gets the last word.

December 29, 2018

Outpatient Practice Physician Finances

What Doctors Need To Know About Apple Watch EKG

The computer engineering geniuses at Apple have done it again. They’ve created yet another device that I’m probably going to have to buy. The new Apple Watch (series 4) has the ability for anyone to monitor their EKG (sort of). But what are we as physicians going to do with this data? Most electronic medical records permit patients to upload images to their patient portals for their physicians to have access to. Inevitably, some patients will overuse this system – some physicians are already drowning in dozens of Apple Watch rhythm strips being submitted by a single patient. But even for the patient who sends in a single suspicious rhythm strip, if the physician is going to make a clinical decision based on the strip, what are the implications? So, this presents several questions for physicians.

What is it?

The Apple Watch 4 can monitor the heart rhythm in two ways. First, it can measure the regularity of the heart beat by essentially taking the patient’s pulse; this can be reported as regular or irregular. Second, it can measure a single lead EKG reading and it is this latter feature that is really innovative. All EKGs are done by positioning 2 electrodes on different parts of the body and then measuring the electrical signal between those electrodes. A full EKG uses 12 electrodes and produces 12 different wave forms, or leads. The first three of these leads are the limb leads I – III. Lead I measures the signal between the left arm and right arm. Lead II is between the left leg and right arm. Lead III is between the left leg and left arm. The problem with a watch is that an electrode sensor on the back of the watch only has contact with one arm but by placing a second electrode sensor on the knob of the watch, a person can touch that second electrode with a finger from the other arm, thus generating a lead I EKG tracing by having an electrode in contact with both the left and the right arms simultaneously.

What can it tell you?

Since the Apple Watch can only generate a single lead EKG, there are limitations about the amount of information it can provide. For example, you cannot diagnose a myocardial infarction from only one lead (you need all 12). The main information that the lead I tracing will give you is whether the patient is in sinus rhythm or atrial fibrillation. Apple claims that the Apple Watch is 98.3% sensitive and 99.6% specific for classifying atrial fibrillation. However, 12.2% of rhythms could not be classified by the Apple Watch EKG app. Although Apple only mentions atrial fibrillation on its marketing materials for the Apple Watch 4, any physician who looks at telemetry monitor strips in the hospital knows that there are other important rhythm abnormalities that can be identified from a single lead EKG tracing.

What should you do if the patient uploads a rhythm strip?

Although we all get trained in EKG interpretation in medical school, most physicians are not credentialed to read 12-lead EKGs. In most hospitals, physicians must apply for hospital privileges to interpret EKGs and generally, this will be limited to cardiologists; in smaller hospitals, it may be a general internist who has EKG interpretation privileges. Reading an Apple Watch rhythm strip is considerably less complicated than reading a full 12-lead EKG but nevertheless, physicians should know their own limits as to whether they can confidently identify atrial fibrillation (or some other abnormal rhythm) by a rhythm strip. So, for example, if you are a podiatrist or dermatologist and do not normally look at heart rhythm strips, you may want to tell the patient who uploads an Apple Watch rhythm strip to your electronic medical record that EKG interpretation is not part of your normal practice and that they should check with one of their other physicians. However, most primary care physicians are trained in the recognition of atrial fibrillation.

Can you bill for review of the rhythm strip?

The short answer is in 2018, no but in 2019… maybe. Lets take a look at the CPT code possibilities for Apple Watch rhythm interpretation.

  1. CPT code 93010 (Medicare reimbursement about $8.50). This is the CPT code for interpretation of a 12-lead EKG if someone else (usually the hospital) owns the EKG machine. It requires an order from a physician and a written interpretation. Since an Apple Watch rhythm strip is only 1 lead and since it is done by the patient’s initiation and not by the physician’s order, CPT 93010 cannot be used.
  2. CPT code 93042 (Medicare reimbursement about $7.00). This is the CPT code for rhythm strip interpretation of 1-3 leads of EKG tracings. Like the previous CPT code, this requires an order from a physician and a written interpretation. Although it is conceivable that 93042 could be used to bill for Apple Watch rhythm strip interpretation, I would be hesitant to bill it since the patient is submitting the strip without a physician order.
  3. CPT code G2010 (Medicare reimbursement about $6.50). This is the new CPT code for “Remote Evaluation of Pre-Recorded Patient Information” that was created as part of the 2019 Medicare physician fee schedule. This was designed for video or images such as photos of a rash, etc. that a patient creates and then sends to the physician for review. There are several restrictions when billing this CPT code, however. The physician doing the review of the pre-recorded information cannot have seen the patient for a regular evaluation & management encounter within the previous 7 days or within 24 after reviewing the images. Also, the physician has to interpret the image and communicate the findings to the patient within 24 business hours. We will not know for sure if Medicare carriers will accept CPT code G2010 for Apple Watch rhythm interpretation until the new fee schedule goes into effect after January 1, 2019 and we start submitting bills for it; however, it would seem like this CPT code would be the best fit.

Who should get one?

Since the main thing the Apple Watch EKG app does is tell whether there is atrial fibrillation, it will primarily be useful for patients at risk of atrial fibrillation or with a history of previous atrial fibrillation. Better identification of patients with intermittent atrial fibrillation really could save lives since about 15% of all strokes are the result of untreated atrial fibrillation. My suspicion is that a lot of other people with occasional PACs or PVC (premature atrial/ventricular contractions) will also be uploading rhythm strips to understand why they have occasional subjective “skipped heartbeats”. Although not designed for PAC or PVC identification, this could be a side benefit of the app. Similarly, ventricular arrhythmias such as non-sustained ventricular tachycardia may be identifiable. Bradycardic rhythms such as sinus bradycardia and various forms of heart block (1st degree, 2nd degree, and 3rd degree) may be identifiable. Even if these rhythms cannot be diagnosed with complete certainty, the tracings from the Apple Watch EKG app may be suspicious enough for the physician to direct the patient to seek medical attention where a full 12-lead EKG or a 24-Holter monitor can be performed.

I’ve never had atrial fibrillation or any kind of heart problem. So, am I going to get an Apple Watch 4 with an EKG app… well, yeah, probably.

December 20, 2018

Electronic Medical Records Outpatient Practice

Should A Physician Pre-Chart For Outpatient Visits?

There is a subtle difference between inpatient and outpatient medical practice that nobody ever talks about… time management. With inpatient practice, you see patients at your own pace during rounds and if you want to stop for a moment to have a cup of coffee or speak with a colleague, it doesn’t disrupt your workday. But with outpatient practice, you can work leisurely at your own pace before office hours and after office hours but during office hours, you are in a constant state of demand for time efficiency.

In my own practice, my office hours come in 4-hour blocks, either 8:00 AM to 12:00 noon or 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM. During those blocks, I schedule 15 minutes for return visits and 45 minutes for new patient visits – every minute is scheduled and the only way that there is a break is if one of the patients doesn’t show up for their appointment. During that 4-hour block, I have nurses, schedulers, and registration staff who all need to be working in order for the office to function in a financially viable way. But for them to stay constantly busy, I have to be constantly busy.

10 years ago, before we adopted an electronic medical record, each patient would have a paper chart and I would make a few shorthand comments on a piece of progress note paper and then at the end of office hours, dictate letters to the referring physician for each patient, clean up my orders for the day and fill out billing sheets. In other words, I “back-loaded” my work day with a couple of hours of charting after I was done seeing patents. Once we adopted an EMR, I tried to do a lot of that work while I was in the room with the patient. The result was that I didn’t have as much dictation and chart work after office hours but the EMR documentation encroached on the time that I was with the patients. I continued to allocate the same amount of office time per patient but I seemed to have fewer minutes just talking with my patients. And because the EMR results in the physician doing more of the work of documentation than in the past, I still was spending an hour or two at the end of the day finishing referral letters and closing encounters in the EMR.

This was reflected on my CGCAHPS patient satisfaction survey results. Patients were happy with the care that they got but they were not happy about the time they spent in the waiting room when I ran behind and they often commented that they didn’t get enough time to spend with the doctor once they were in the exam room.

So 5 months ago, I tried a different approach, pre-charting for my outpatient visits. The day before my office hours, I start my progress note for each patient by selecting the appropriate return visit note template (I have different templates for different diseases: one for interstitial lung disease, one for asthma, one for COPD, etc.). I pre-populate any new test results and pre-populate my final “impression” by pasting in the diagnoses that I manage for that particular patient from their previous note. For new patients, I insert the appropriate new patient template (again, I have different templates for different pulmonary conditions) and pre-populate the note with any test results, radiograph image review, pulmonary function tests, etc. that are available for that patient, either from our medical center or from other hospitals that I can access through the “CareEverywhere” function in our EMR (we use Epic). As a result, I spend about an hour prior to each 4-hour outpatient block pre-charting, sometimes longer if I have a new patient with a lot of records that require reviewing. After 5 months, I’ve found that there are advantages and disadvantages:


  1. I am less likely to get behind on my schedule and so my patients are spending less time in the waiting room.
  2. I have more time to spend just talking with my patients since I am not trying to furiously type into the EMR as much when I am in the exam room with the patient. As a consequence, I find that I actually enjoy my time in the outpatient clinic a lot more than I used to.
  3. I anticipate improvement in two of the CGCAHPS survey questions: During this visit did this provider seem to know the important information about your medical history? and During this visit, did this provider have your medical records?
  4. I finish the day’s work earlier because I do less charting at the end of the day by front-loading all of that charting before office hours.
  5. I have now started billing CPT code 99358 about 2-4 times a week. This code pays you for review of medical records prior to seeing the patient in the office, as long as you spend at least 31 minutes doing the review. In my own outpatient practice, most of my patients have already had pretty extensive evaluations and in about half of the new patients, I spend > 30 minutes sifting through office notes, lab tests, cardiovascular tests, chest CT images, pulmonary function tests, etc. This pays 3.16 RVUs (about $114 in Medicare reimbursement) and I now find myself getting paid for the work that I was previously doing for free. And this adds up… I estimate that my clinical receipts will increase about $13,000 per year from this CPT, alone.
  6. I have x-rays available when I see the patient. Most of my patients are sent to me from physicians at other hospital systems and so most of their chest x-rays and CT scan images are not in our hospital’s computer system. By pre-charting, I have been able to identify where those radiographs were done so that my office staff can contact that hospital’s radiology department and have the images sent over the internet before I see the patient – in the past, I often had to schedule a second visit with the patient just to go over x-ray images that I requested after I first saw the patient for an initial consultation.
  7. I have been able to do a “huddle” with the nurses just before the start of office hours to let them know about anything special that they will need to do to prepare for each patient’s visit.


  1. In the past, I defined my workday as being complete when I finished all of the work for the patients that I saw on that particular day and the administrative duties I had for that day. Because pre-charting is often relegated to the last thing that I do each day (since it is usually the least urgent), pre-charting becomes the task that keeps me at work an hour longer each day and so I now negatively associate it with being the thing that steals my time away from my family in the evening.
  2. I often have residents and fellows in the office with me. I worry that by doing the pre-charting, I am detracting from their experience of independently analyzing the patient. Personally, I believe that the trainees learn a lot about how to comb through old records for diagnostic clues efficiently by actually doing it themselves and when I pre-chart, I am depriving them of this opportunity.
  3. I’ve created this nagging sense that I am becoming obsessive-compulsive.

Every time management strategy in the outpatient clinic has a trade-off between advantages and disadvantages. I don’t think that pre-charting save me any of the total time I spend on any given week but I don’t think it requires any more of my time either – it just shifts some of the documentation time around from after the clinic hours to before the clinic hours. But I think that it makes both my patients’ experience and my experience with the time spent in the exam room a little better. So, for now, I’m going to keep pre-charting.

November 28, 2018

Outpatient Practice Physician Finances

Improving Your Outpatient Revenue: The CPT Codes You Forgot To Bill

In my last post, I lamented that Medicare billing will earn me $614 per hour reading pulmonary function tests but only $107 per hour in outpatient clinical practice. We all have the impression that outpatient medicine does not pay very well. But there are some ways to improve your outpatient billing by making sure that you bill all of the CPT codes that you can legitimately bill for. Here are 8 CPT codes along with the Medicare reimbursable amounts that you can bill in addition to your regular evaluation and management CPT codes that will enhance your outpatient revenue:

  1. 99497 – Advanced Care Planning 30 Minutes (2.39 RVUs; $86). You can bill this code when you are having face-to-face discussions about hospice and DNR status with the patient, family members, or surrogate. Time must be documented to be between 16-45 minutes. There is no limit to the number of times this can be billed in a given year. If you spend more than 45 minutes, then you can also bill CPT code 99498 for each additional 30 minutes of face-to-face discussion. I see a lot of patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, an ultimately fatal disease, and end-of-life discussions are common and always take >16 minutes so this is a useful code.
  2. 99358 – Prolonged Service Without Patient Contact (3.16 RVUs; $114). You can bill this code for reviewing patient records before or after an office visit with a patient. For example, if you are seeing a new patient with extensive medical records and documentation. Time must be documented and you have to have at least 31 minutes spend reviewing material to bill this code. Bill this code on the day that you review all of the records. Not only does it pay reasonably well, it can make you more efficient – by pre-reviewing all of the old records before the start of your office hours, you can spend more time actually seeing patients so that your office staff are not sitting around waiting for you to review records before putting the next patient in a room. Code 99358 is for 31-74 minutes of record review. If you spend 75-104 minutes, you can additionally bill 9359 (1.52 RVUs). Many of my patients come to me with multiple CT scans that require review of the various images, pulmonary function tests that require interpretation, lots of lab test, cardiovascular tests, hospitalization records, and outpatient notes from the referring physician. It is surprisingly easy to spend >31 minutes sorting through all of the records, doing my own interpretation of the CT images and PFTs, and documenting all of these findings in our electronic medical record.
  3. 99406 – Smoking Cessation Counseling 3-10 Minutes (0.41 RVUs; $15). Few things that we do in medicine can have as great of an impact on our patient’s health than getting them to quit smoking, and Medicare will pay us to do it! You can bill this in addition to your regular evaluation and management CPT code. You need to document what you discussed and the number of minutes (I use a “smartphrase” in our Epic electronic medical record). If you spend more than 10 minutes, then you can bill CPT code 99407 (0.79 RVUs). Be sure to add a -25 modifier to indicate that the smoking cessation counseling was done in addition to your regular evaluation and management service that day. Although this CPT code does not pay very much, we almost always spend at least 3 minutes talking to the patient when we are counseling about smoking cessation so this is one of the codes I bill frequently.
  4. 94664 – Inhaler Technique Training (0.49 RVUs; $18). I once read a study that found that 50% of patients use their inhalers incorrectly. This code pays us to do the right thing and ensure that all patients are using the proper technique with their inhalers. There are so many new inhaler devices on the market now that just knowing how to use one device does not necessarily mean that the patient will know how to use another device. We do not keep samples in our office except for inhalers which we keep purely for the purpose of teaching our patients when prescribing a new inhaler. Make sure you document that inhaler technique training was performed (another smartphrase). Interestingly, this CPT code is composed of a practice expense RVU and a malpractice RVU but it has no work RVU associated with it. That is because you (the physician) should not be doing the inhaler training – it should be your nurses who do this. Many pharmaceutical companies will provide demonstration inhalers that do not contain any medication – I find these less satisfactory because the patients need to know the feel and taste of the medication when it is delivered with proper technique. I bill this CPT code every time I start a patient on a new inhaler.
  5. 90460 – Intramuscular Injection (0.58 RVUs; $21). This is billed in addition to the CPT code for any vaccine that you administer in the office. In other words, there is one code for the actual vaccine and one code for the injection. I often see physicians only bill the code for the vaccine and so they are leaving a lot of money on the table. If you give 2 vaccines to the same patient during one office visit, use CPT code 90461 for the second injection (0.36 RVUs). We have this CPT code bundled in with common vaccinations (influenza, 23-valent pneumovax, Prevnar-13, etc.) so that it comes up anytime I order the vaccine.
  6. 99490 – Chronic Care Management 20 Minutes (1.19 RVUs; $43). Use this code when you or your staff spend at least 20 minutes per month managing patients with chronic illness when they are not in the office (paperwork, emails, phone calls, etc.). I confess: I’ve never actually billed this code because I never remember to document my time for all of the things that I do to take care of patients and the requirements are just to onerous. However, every practice has a handful of patients who occupy a disproportionately large amount of your staff’s time and your time (think about the patient who calls your office twice a week, every week). Here are the requirements:
    • Patients have to have 2 or more chronic conditions that you manage.
    • The chronic conditions are expected to last for at least 12 months or until death.
    • There is a reasonable probability of death/decompensation/exacerbation/decline if the chronic conditions are not actively managed.
    • The patient has to agree to a chronic care management plan with you (probably safest to get this signed in case of an audit but at the very least, document your conversation with the patient to this effect in the patient’s chart).
    • You (or your office staff) have to document a total of 20 minutes per month doing things like coordinating home health care, filling out various forms related to the patient and their chronic condition, phone calls with the patient, emails to the patient (preferably via your electronic medical record for HIPPA compliance), etc. That means that every time you have a phone call with that patient, you have to document the number of minutes you spent on the phone and then documenting the discussion and your staff have to document the number of minutes they spent filling out the patients FMLA forms.
    • Only one physician (or NP or PA) can bill this code for any given patient on any given month.
    • You can bill this code once each month
    • You have to adhere to the CMS scope of service for this particular CPT code including:
      • Care management including medication management and management of the patient’s medical, psychosocial, and functional needs
      • Access to care management services 24-hours a day
      • Continuity of care
      • Creation of a patient-centered care plan that is documented in writing or in the electronic medical record
      • Management of care transitions (e.g. admission to a SNF)
      • Coordination with home-based services such as home healthcare and hospice
      • Multiple ways for the patient or their care giver to contact the physician and/or the office staff (e.g. phone, electronic medical record, email)
      • Use of a certified electronic medical record that is available 24-hours a day to any physicians (or NPs or PAs) that provide cross-coverage
  7. 99495 – Transition Care Management Moderate Complexity (4.64 RVUs; $167) and 99496 – Transition Care Management High Complexity (6.55 RVUs; $236). The nurse practitioner who I work with oversees our pulmonary transition clinic that has been incredibly successful at reducing our hospital’s 30-day readmission rate for COPD. CPT codes 99495 & 99496 are perfect codes to cover this service. To meet the requirements of this code, there has to be contact with the patient within 2 days of discharge from the hospital (this can be by phone from your office nursing staff) and there has to be a face-to-face visit with the physician (or NP or PA) within 14 days of discharge from the hospital (7 days for 99496). The reason that these CPT codes are associated with a high RVU value is that the first office visit after discharge from the hospital is bundled into it. That first face-to-face visit is not billed separately and is included in the CPT code but any additional office visits in the 30 days after discharge can be billed separately. The transitional care can involve things like reviewing the discharge summary, following up on any pending test results, arranging follow-up testing, medication reconciliation, etc.
  8. 99354 – Prolonged Services (3.69 RVUs; $133). Use this CPT code when you spend an excessively long amount of time with an office visit. I find this code particularly useful when I am seeing a patient for the first that one of my partners has previously seen within the past 3 years (thus prohibiting me from billing that patient as a new patient visit and forcing me to use the return patient visit codes instead). The time associated with this code is 1-hour but that translates to 31-74 minutes in CMS language. Importantly, that is on top of the time it would take for a regular evaluation and management code. So, for example, if you are billing for a level 5 return visit (defined as 40 minutes by Medicare), then you have to spend at least 70 minutes with that encounter and then you would bill both the level 5 return visit CPT code plus the prolonged services CPT code.

Outpatient practice can be challenging because there is a lot of time outside of the patient’s actual office visit that is required to care for the patient. Using these codes will not make you rich but they can at least partially pay for all of the non-compensated time that you have been providing in order to manage your outpatients.

October 13, 2018

Outpatient Practice

The Silent Victims Of The Opioid Crises: Physicians

Last week, I delivered the opening introduction to the annual Addiction Studies Institute, an annual conference sponsored by Talbot Hall, the addiction recovery hospital at our medical center. This is the 28th year of the conference and was attended by more than 1,000 health professionals, clergy, educators, and criminal justice professionals who had one thing in common: dedication to the treatment and prevention of addiction disorders. The key note speak was Dr. Jerome Adams, the Surgeon General of the United States. He had a powerful message about our current opioid crisis and that it takes people from many professions to combat it. I left the conference energized and ready to help do my part in curing society of this scourge.

And then I came back to my world in the hospital, to learn that yet another one of our physicians had been physically threatened by a patient because of refusal to prescribe opioids.

Currently, 1-2 people in Columbus, Ohio die every day from drug overdose. Nationwide, 64,000 people die of an overdose every year. The reasons for our current opioid crisis are complicated but are largely due to the confluence of three key factors:

  1. Over-prescription of opioid pain medications in the 1990’s and 2000’s

  2. Lowered costs of heroin imported from Mexico

  3. Availability of high-potency, low cost fentanyl over the internet from China

There have been several initiatives to battle the opioid crisis, particularly to reduce the excessive prescription of opioid pain medications that have caused many people to unwittingly become addicted. Here in Ohio, for example, there has been the creation of the OARRS database, where pharmacists upload records of all opioids dispensed in Ohio by a doctor’s prescription; prescribers are required to check the OARRS database prior to every opioid prescription to ensure that patients are not getting opioids from multiple physicians. The state medical board limits the number of days that a patient can receive opioids for post-operative surgical pain. There has been a state-wide effort to use non-opioid pain medications whenever possible, including the approval of a new medical marijuana law here in Ohio.

The result of all of this is that it is harder for physicians to prescribe opioids and by prescribing opioids, physicians increasingly put themselves at risk of sanctions by the state medical board, including loss of their medical license if they don’t follow all of the regulations exactly. Consequently, many doctors in Ohio are reluctant to prescribe opioids and patients who have become addicted get desperate.

Recently, we had a very good physician resign from our hospital because a patient threatened the doctor with death if the doctor would not prescribe opioids. The patient had initially been treated with opioids for cancer pain but with effective treatment, the cancer was cured. Since the cancer was cured, the cancer-related pain should also have resolved and when the doctor said that it was time to taper the opioid pain reliever off, the patient became irate. This was a doctor whose professional life had been dedicated to relieving pain and suffering, particularly of those people with cancer but to the doctor, it was not worth the risk to life nor the fear of walking through the clinic parking lot alone every morning.

This week, a patient called and threatened another one of our doctor’s lives – the doctor had not even seen the patient for 3 years but another prescriber, had told the patient that they were no longer able to prescribe an opioid pain medication to the patient and somehow the patient got it in his head that it was all the original doctor’s fault.

As physicians, we take these threats very seriously because sometimes patients act on these threats. On July 26, 2017, in South Bend, Indiana, Dr. Todd Graham (a physiatrist) refused to write a prescription for an opioid pain medication for a patient and later that afternoon, the patient’s husband shot and killed him. Every pain management physician knows about this case and thinks about it every time they de-escalate an opioid prescription or decline a request for a new opioid prescription.

Sometimes the threats are more subtle and play more to the physician’s emotions rather than making physical threats. I had a patient who I prescribed oxycodone-containing cough suppressants who, when told that I was not going to prescribe them anymore, told me that he would just have to buy opioids on the street and that my failure to continue to prescribe the cough suppressant was going to turn him into a street drug addict. He said that his impending use of heroin was going to be all my fault… I still said no.

Sometimes the threats are not so much physical or emotional but the threat of inconvenience. As an example, we had an inpatient who wanted an opioid pain medication and the hospitalist did not find a justifiable indication for it and refused to prescribe it. The patient threatened that if the doctor didn’t prescribe him Percocet, that the patient was going to report that the doctor was intoxicated. The doctor refused and so the patient called the medical staff office to report the hospitalist was drinking on the job. We had to pull the hospitalist off of rounds and sequester the doctor in the administrative offices until we could get the lab director to do an alcohol breath test. It was, of course, negative, however, the time of sequestration put the hospitalist behind in her rounds and so she ended up working a couple of hours later than her normal shift in order to finish her patient care duties… and the patient never did get the Percocet.

There are some tangible things that we can do to protect our physicians so that they do not need to either feel guilt for not prescribing opioids or feel that their lives are at risk for not prescribing opioids. Here are 11 things that we can do as medical leaders:

  1. Don’t ignore the doctors’ concerns. If they tell you that they are worried or fearful, take it seriously. When it comes to your perception of their safety and their perception of their safety, their perception is what is really important.
  2. Set clear expectations when initially prescribing opioids. All patients receiving more than a few day’s of an opioid for post-operative pain or a bronchitis-related cough should have a written pain contract that the patient signs. The pain contract should specify the purpose of the opioid, that regular drug testing will be done to ensure that they are not taking other controlled substances and are not diverting (selling) the opioids being prescribed to them. It should spell out that violations of the pain contract will result in a non-negotiable cessation of opioid prescription.
  3. Secure vulnerable practice locations. Using badge-reading locks to doors leading to high-risk clinics such as pain clinics or palliative medicine clinics can provide a sense of security to the physicians.
  4. Locate vulnerable practices in areas with security. Once again, pain management practices and palliative medicine practices are best suited in either a hospital location or in large, multidisciplinary clinic building where the size of the facility warrants having on-site security personnel. This is much safer than locating these practices in small, isolated office buildings.
  5. Consider panic buttons. If a patient threatens a physician, there usually is not enough time to pull a cell phone out and call for help. In large office buildings or hospitals, there may not even be good cell phone service in the interior rooms. A panic button that alarms directly to on-site security can provide a lot of reassurance to the physician.
  6. Consider chaperones. When a doctor is in a closed exam room with a patient, they can feel very vulnerable. Having a second health care worker in the room, especially for those patients who the doctor anticipates conflict over opioid prescribing, can help maintain an atmosphere of control and can run out to get help in event of patient threats.
  7. Make opioid addiction treatment available. Most patients who are addicted to opioid pain medications do not really want to be addicted to them but they cannot see any way out. Any physician who prescribes opioids needs to know where to refer patients who are addicted in order to get help, ideally some place where the patient can go directly from the physician’s office to initiate evaluation and treatment for addiction.
  8. If you are the medical director, be willing to be “the bad guy”. Many times, a well-meaning doctor will prescribe opioids for a chronic condition like a painful non-healing wound or a cancer but once that wound or cancer is cured, the doctor finds him/herself still prescribing an opioid. The doctor has spent months or years being that patient’s advocate and healer and is often reluctant to disrupt that doctor-patient relationship. Sometimes it is easier for that doctor to tell the patient “I want to help you but my medical director says I have to stop prescribing your opioids.”
  9. Do not penalize physicians for doing the right thing. It was not too many years ago that we were told that “pain is the 5th vital sign” and failure to treat pain (with opioids) was akin to not treating patients with hypotension from septic shock. It was only last year that CMS still incorporated how well pain was treated as a component of the HCAHPS surveys of patient satisfaction. Patients who do not get the opioid prescription that they want are often angry and vindictive. We have to accept that those patients are going to fill out HCAHPS and CGCAHPS surveys unfavorably and will rate doctors low on on-line rating services. Hospital leaders have to be willing to accept theses ratings and not hold them against physicians who refuse to prescribe opioids unnecessarily. We cannot be the facilitators of patients who would hold their doctors hostage to prescribing habits.
  10. Beware of physicians who accept payments from pharmaceutical companies that market opioids. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine by Dr. Scott Hadland this year found that 7% of physicians who prescribe opioids accepted payments from pharmaceutical companies for non-research opioid payments (speaking fees, meals, honoraria, consulting fees, education, travel, etc.). 1.7% of these physicians received > $1,000 in benefits from pharmaceutical companies regarding opioids. Those physicians who received payments from opioid-producing pharmaceutical companies were less likely to reduce opioid prescriptions to patients than physicians not receiving pharmaceutical payments. In fact, every meal received by a physician from a pharmaceutical company increased opioid prescriptions by 0.7%.
  11. Give the doctors other options. There are a lot of other ways to treat pain than opioids. Often, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, physical therapy, or an interventional pain procedure can be more effective that an opioid. We need to be sure that these methods of treating pain are just as easy to order and arrange as a prescription for Vicodin.

“To relieve pain and suffering” is at the core of what makes us doctors. But then so is the tenet of “first, do no harm”. The problem with opioids is that they can relieve pain but they can also cause harm, to the patient but also less directly to the physician. It is incumbent on all of us to create treatment environments where physicians can feel safe from being the ones who are harmed by the opioid epidemic.

August 2, 2018