Strengthening Physician Advisor Engagement in the CDI Process to Decrease Your Unanswered Query Rate

Comprehensive yet pertinent documentation is critical within the medical record.  Beyond data and insight being shared among medical providers caring for a patient, good documentation also allows for accurate representation of patient severity in quality data and appropriate coding, billing, and reimbursement.

Clinical documentation improvement (CDI) queries are a critical tool in optimizing the medical record by ensuring that every aspect of the patient’s clinical condition is captured. But identifying and creating appropriate queries is only half of the process. Without provider involvement, these efforts can simply die on the vine.

Shortly after I became physician advisor for ProHealth Care in southeastern Wisconsin, I learned that one of the challenges the CDI team there faced was provider engagement with queries. Queries were kept open for up to 10 business days following patient discharge, which, when added to the time frame allowed for coding queries, often led to delay in billing of well over three weeks. This delay not only increased the risk of claim audits, but also overt denials. Additionally, it was apparent that many of the providers within the health system were concerned about altering the medical record post-discharge, and there was not a clear understanding of what CDI queries were for – nor how impactful their completion could be.

After reviewing the data, we determined that anywhere from 20-25 CDI queries went completely unanswered every quarter. Knowing that the majority of the queries were directed toward our system’s hospitalist team, which primarily works a seven-on/seven-off schedule, we settled on an eight-business day model, so even if a query was received on the final day a provider was on service, they would have time to answer it when they returned. These eight days started from the time the query was initially sent, not from the time the patient was discharged. This required education for all providers, informing them that the CDI query clock starts immediately upon receipt of a query and does not stop ticking when away from the office, on vacation, or otherwise off-service. 

Next, we devised a step-wise time frame of reminders to the providers that a CDI query remained open and required attention. Two days after the initial query is routed to the provider within our electronic medical record by the clinical documentation specialist, another message is routed to the provider – in addition to a call to the office or a text page. If the query remains unanswered on days four, six, and the morning of day eight, the clinical documentation specialist informs me via email. I then send a communication to the provider about the unanswered query via fax to the office, electronic medical record message, or via secure email. Within my communication is identifying patient information, the date the query was originally sent, the date of discharge, and the diagnosis that is being queried, in addition to the time and day the query will permanently close.

There is also generalized information regarding the purpose and importance of CDI queries, and directions on how documentation can be amended in the electronic medical record following patient discharge.  

Over the first three months of this new process, our unanswered CDI query rate dropped by 55 percent. Two quarters later, it dropped by 73 percent, as compared to our baseline. While a significant amount of additional effort is being put into this process, our work has clearly made a difference. Along with the electronic and paper reminders putting the work front and center in the minds of our providers, the process has also prompted thoughtful questions about what is needed and why. I have happily fielded questions from providers after they received a message from me, further strengthening the educational aspect of this process.  

I encourage you to reassess your CDI query processes; consider trying these methods, and encourage engagement between your physician advisor and CDI team. You may find that a little more interaction will greatly improve your results!

Program Note: Register to hear Dr. Ugarte Hopkins on Talk Ten Tuesdays at 10:00 a.m. ET today.

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