Abbreviations…The coder’s telephone game

May 18th, 2018 / By Allison Morgan, MS, CPC

We live in a communication age that embraces abbreviations and acronyms as a natural secondary language. Our emotions and reactions are reflected in “LOLs” and emojis on a regular basis. I openly admit there have been many times when a quick abbreviated email has made me turn to Google to understand what in the world the sender intended.

In the medical community, the use of abbreviations and interpretation of them is nothing new. It sometimes feels like the rest of the world is just catching up to us and learning how to deal with a reliance on acronyms and the challenges that come with it. I can recall multiple times when a series of letters in a note left a group of coders each with a different explanation of the abbreviation. In the end, the coders had their own interpretations based on the individual coder’s experience with the provider, how they had seen the code used in the past and the context of the abbreviation in the note.

We know that for the sake of time and efficiency, abbreviations and acronyms are a necessity in provider documentation, but improved time and efficiency must be balanced with documentation accuracy. An initial glance at “CP” could lead a coder to immediately correlate it with chest pain…but it could also be cerebral palsy. “MS” can represent multiple sclerosis, but a simple context change may have it represent morphine sulfate or magnesium sulfate. Did the provider’s use of “I” imply infection or illness? The documentation doesn’t change, but different interpretations carry specific outcomes, which impacts the encounter’s storyline and ultimately affects the accuracy of the code assignment and record of the patient’s diagnosis and treatment.

Abbreviations aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so here are some things to keep in mind:

  • When reading a note, avoid assuming the meaning of the abbreviation and stay objective.
  • If an outside source or auditor was reading the note, would they interpret the abbreviation within the documentation the same way you have? You may know what your provider means, but will the auditor?
  • Be sure to establish defined sections of your note. The reality is that context does play a big role in abbreviation interpretation, so clearly identifying documentation as part of a specific section can assist in clarification. Take the abbreviation “CAD,” for example. In the technique section, CAD can refer to a computer-aided detection but in the impression section, CAD may be referring to coronary artery disease.
  • Be aware of the use of provider initials and titles. These should be documented in a clearly identified signature section at the bottom of the note.

We may not always know what to do with a friend’s “BRB” or “ROFL” (when all else fails, respond with a 😊), but staying vigilant and being aware of how your providers abbreviate can help avoid misinterpretation and keep everyone on the same page when it comes to accurate coding and documentation.

Allison Morgan is a clinical development analyst at 3M Health Information Systems.


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