Turtle bites, walking into lampposts, and men accidentally becoming pregnant: Obamacare’s medical coding mandate

04/12/2012 - 2:01pm

A new Obamacare regulation will require doctors to use a new 140,000 code system called the ICD-10.[1] This new mandate forces a new level of complexity to the practice of medicine that not only may convince some medical practitioners to retire early but could also lead to some bizarre results.

How specific does this coding system get? The Wall Street Journal created a web page that allows you to search the contents of the ICD-10 system.[2]

If you’ve been bitten by a turtle for the second time you would use code W5921XD. There are also codes for getting bitten by macaws (W6111XA), walking into lampposts (W2202XA, for the first time; W2202XD for the second time), and crocheting injuries (Y93D1).

By mandating a more complex coding system, Obamacare has increased the possibility of human error.

What might happen if health care providers accidentally put the wrong code into the computer? Perhaps the code for being pregnant might be accidentally typed in for someone who is neither pregnant nor even capable of becoming pregnant.

How often might something like this occur?

Apparently, quite frequently.

According to the Washington Post, 17,000 men, in England, were scheduled for prenatal care due to incorrect coding.[3] Sarah Kliff, healthcare journalist for the Washington Post writes:

There’s been a lot of fighting over whether we should move to the new ICD. Critics say that it’s everything that’s wrong with American health care: too many codes, too bureaucratic and aggressively regulated. Supporters contend that using the new data will provide more granular information about how we use health care, allowing for better data analysis.

One strike against moving to the new system, however, is that it could create a country with a lot more accidentally pregnant men. With 140,000 medical codes to choose from, each denoting a very specific medical condition, there’s a pretty wide margin for error. Putting the pros and cons of male conception aside, it does seem like one concern to keep in mind as the country debates moving to an increasingly complex system for organizing our medical data. [4]

[1] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904103404576560742746021106.html
[2] http://graphicsweb.wsj.com/documents/MEDICALCODES0911/#term=Turtle
[3] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/why-britain-has-17000-pregnant-men/2012/04/06/gIQAC2oJ0S_blog.html
[4] Id.