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January-February 2021

Editor’s Note: COVID Takes Its Toll on Coders
By Lee DeOrio
For The Record
Vol. 33 No. 1 P. 4

Like they normally are in most situations, coders have been largely ignored during the pandemic. It stands to reason, too, what with front-line staff facing the brunt of an unfathomable medical and mental health crisis. Nevertheless, coders have had their share of challenges to overcome in terms of both working conditions and mental health.

For many, the pandemic has meant a shift to working from home. Fortunately for the profession, it has experience with this set-up, with remote coding hardly being unique anymore. Still, for those making the transition for the first time, there have been a handful issues to be sorted out.

Some of the challenges are what you would expect: privacy issues, dealing with school-age children, and working “alone” for the first time. Several coders I reached out to mentioned how much they miss the interaction with coworkers, whether it be small talk or asking for help with a work-related question. “It used to be a great tool to be able to look over the cubicle in the office and get advice or different perspectives on coding issues,” one said.

The immediacy of being in close proximity to colleagues has been sorely missed. It’s made taken-for-granted activities such as training and receiving IT help more difficult. Education, especially in conference settings, has taken a serious blow. Several coders expressed that while the virtual version of AHIMA’s annual conference was helpful, it paled in comparison to actually being on site, especially in terms of visiting the “exhibit floor.”

Then, of course, there’s the learning curve associated with coding correctly for COVID-19, including the disease itself, testing, and vaccination. The chaos has subsided somewhat but rules and regulations are being added or amended rather frequently, a situation that has some coders on edge. Several spoke of prebill backlogs increasing as coding managers tried to determine whether the documentation supported what was being coded.

Sadly, the mental health toll appears to be even higher. Forget the usual worries about job security as many health care organizations plunge into a financial abyss; it was the personal tales of tragedy that shook coders to the core. Day after day, they read the documentation detailing the untimely deaths of those killed by the virus.

A healthy 48-year-old who fought the virus for four weeks in the hospital passed away. A 50-year-old with Down syndrome who became ill was sent to a nursing home to recover. However, emergency surgery was necessary, and, with no room at the jam-packed local hospital, he was air-flighted two hours. A positive test for COVID and two weeks later he passed away.

For coders working on national accounts, it was easy to spot the so-called “hot spots” as they were developing. All that did was add more stress and anxiety.

Still, there is hope, even humor, as witnessed by one coder who said the transition to ICD-11 is going to be a comparative walk in the park.