Ordering Tests Without Using Words: Are ICD-10 and CPT Codes Bringing Precision or Dumbing Us Down?

The chest CT report was a bit worrisome. Henry had “pleural based masses” that had grown since his previous scan, which had been ordered by another doctor for unrelated reasons. But as Henry’s PCP, it had become my job to follow up on an emergency room doctor’s incidental finding. The radiologist recommended a PET scan to see if there was increased metabolic activity, which would mean the spots were likely cancerous.

So the head of radiology says this is needed. But I am the treating physician, so I have to put the order in. In my clunky EMR I search for an appropriate diagnostic code in situations like this. This software (Greenway) is not like Google; if you don’t search for exactly what the bureaucratic term is, but use clinical terms instead, it doesn’t suggest alternatives (unrelated everyday example – what a doctor calls a laceration is “open wound” in insurance speak but the computer doesn’t know they’re the same thing).

So here I am, trying to find the appropriate ICD-10 code to buy Henry a PET scan. Why can’t I find the diagnosis code I used to get the recent CT order in when I placed it, months ago? I cruise down the list of diagnoses in his EMR “chart”. There, I find every diagnosis that was ever entered. They are not listed alphabetically or chronologically. The list appears totally random, although perhaps the list is organized alphanumerically by ICD-10, although they are not not displayed in my search box, but that wouldn’t do me any good anyway since I don’t have more than five ICD-10 codes memorized.

Patients are waiting, I’m behind, the usual time pressure in healthcare.

Can’t find a previously used diagnosis. Search for “nonspecific finding on chest X-ray” and multiple variations thereof.

I see R93.89 – “abnormal finding on diagnostic imaging of other body structures”. Close enough, use it, type in exactly what the chief of radiology had said in his report. Move on. Next patient.

Several days later I get a printout of that order in my inbox with a memo that the diagnosis doesn’t justify payment for a PET scan. Attached to that is a multi page list of diagnoses that would work.

Frustrated, I go through the list. It’s another day, other patients are waiting. Eventually I come across R91.8 “other nonspecific finding of lung field” – not exactly pleura, but what the heck, close enough, let’s use that one.

Why is this – me hurriedly choosing the next best thing on a multipage printout, while my other patients are waiting – any more practical, accurate or fraud proof than having me describe in appropriate CLINICAL language what the patient needs and letting SOMEONE ELSE look for the darn code?

Here I am, trying to order what a radiologist told me to order, without having the tools to do it.

Next thing you know, Henry’s insurance will probably have some third party radiologist deny coverage because he disagrees with my radiologist, and I’ll be stuck in the middle…

Not quite what I thought I’d be doing. Who works for whom in healthcare?

9 Responses to “Ordering Tests Without Using Words: Are ICD-10 and CPT Codes Bringing Precision or Dumbing Us Down?”


  1. 1 samanthaharris September 24, 2019 at 2:58 pm

    I think we can safely say the organisations run the show these days! I read an interesting article on reporting of ‘incidentals’ – they decided (insurance firms with radiography advice) that patients no longer need to know as it worries them and can lead to further visits – you couldn’t make it up. Thanks for showing you care.


  1. 1 Ordering Tests Without Using Words: Are ICD-10 and CPT Codes Bringing Precision or Dumbing Us Down? – Health Econ Bot Trackback on September 26, 2019 at 10:49 am
  2. 2 Ordering Tests Without Using Words: Are ICD-10 and CPT Codes Bringing Precision or Dumbing Us Down? | Health Advice and more Trackback on September 26, 2019 at 10:51 am
  3. 3 Ordering Tests Without Using Words: Are ICD-10 and CPT Codes Bringing Precision or Dumbing Us Down? – BrighterLife Trackback on September 26, 2019 at 11:11 am
  4. 4 Ordering Tests Without Using Words: Are ICD-10 and CPT Codes Bringing Precision or Dumbing Us Down? – Site Title Trackback on September 26, 2019 at 11:17 am
  5. 5 Ordering Tests Without Using Words: Are ICD-10 and CPT Codes Bringing Precision or Dumbing Us Down? – Health News Trackback on September 26, 2019 at 1:35 pm
  6. 6 Ordering Tests Without Using Words: Are ICD-10 and CPT Codes Bringing Precision or Dumbing Us Down? – Health Benefits Trackback on September 26, 2019 at 2:27 pm
  7. 7 Ordering Tests Without Using Words: Are ICD-10 and CPT Codes Bringing Precision or Dumbing Us Down? – Techno Hub Trackback on September 26, 2019 at 4:59 pm
  8. 8 Ordering Tests Without Using Words: Are ICD-10 and CPT Codes Bringing Precision or Dumbing Us Down? – Health Facts & Tips Trackback on September 26, 2019 at 6:14 pm

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Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.

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