Use the scientific method in the transition to ICD-10

If you are a healthcare provider — physician, administrator, or some other leader at a healthcare site — then you know that you face many challenges.  Some seem overwhelming and you may be thinking that you may not be able to handle some of them well.  Perhaps the transition to ICD-10 coding is your main concern right now.

The solution to difficult challenges begins with the first step.  I am taking the liberty of adapting the legendary quotation of Lao Tzu to our present situation: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

What, then, is the first step that I would take?  Before I answer that, let me illustrate with a common household problem.  I want to hang a new painting that I have purchased; I want it in my office.  What tool should I use?  A hammer?  A screwdriver?  The answer to this is whether I am going to use a nail or screw to hang the painting from.  The answer to which of these I am going to use depends upon the placement in the office.  If the painting is going to hang where there is a stud in the wall behind the picture, then I will surely use a nail with a hammer.  If the painting is going to hang in a place where there is only wallboard, then I will use an anchor screw with a screwdriver.

Taking the illustration as a starting point, I will start finding a solution to the challenge at my work site by defining the problem — what is the wall like where I will be hanging the picture — and then proceed to getting the right tool: collect baseline data.  Finding a solution to a problem or at least starting on the path to overcome the challenge requires that one first have a very good understanding of the problem.  If you do not have a good understating and are not able to state the problem explicitly, then much of the effort in solving the problem will result in wasted effort.

For example, suppose that you want to set up a patient portal for patients to electronically communicate with you?  You spend time and effort creating such a portal through a practice management system.  Once it is up and running you find that very few patients are using it.  Why?  Perhaps most of your patients do not use email or have access to a computer.  Perhaps you have failed to inform your patients about this new means of communication.  Whatever the reason may be, you have failed to understand the problem fully.  You did not know which was best to use to hang the painting, the screw or the nail.

The transition to ICD-10 is complex but must be done well if a provider expects to be reimbursed when its use takes effect in October 2014.  There are many things to do to get ready for this transition.  Among them are seeing if your billing and coding department staff have the necessary training and understanding to use ICD-10, seeing if your clearinghouse is ICD-10 ready and if your clinicians provide enough detail on patient visit documentation to support the coding.  A leader at the site should have a team meeting of representatives from affected departments and staff (a representative from most departments other than physical plant will probably need to have a representative) and create of list of tasks that need to be done, such as those listed above, before October 2014.

The ICD-10 example covers challenges that come from outside your site.  There are challenges that come from inside your site too.  For instance, any group that uses Lean or Lean Six Sigma are familiar with eliminating waste to save time and monies. How can one find projects to apply Lean to at your site?  I suggest that a few leaders at a site be identified who can receive suggestions from staff for projects to consider as well as submit their own.  These projects can be then prioritized and teams selected to begin the work of leaning the process.

For instance, the patient-centered medical home at its highest level of implementation will use a patient coordinator to make sure that a patient receives all necessary services from outside providers and that the information generated at other sites flows back to the primary care giver.  The patient coordinator may want to examine the processes used to collect data from outside sources and make sure it is fed back to her in a timely manner.  Once the project is clearly identified and the team decides what data to collect, it can begin its work to redesign the process to improve it and eliminate waste.

No matter what the source of the challenges or projects, the beginning of any effort to address them is to begin with the first step — define your problem as completely as possible and then collect some baseline data so that you can tell later on if your solutions have led to improvements.  These basic steps apply not only to healthcare but to most businesses too.  An orderly approach to problem solving, as found in the scientific method, is the best approach.

Donald Tex Bryant is a consultant who helps healthcare providers meet their challenges. He can be reached at Bryant’s Healthcare Solutions.

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