Q&A: Dealing with Unanswered Queries
Q: In my facility, we are supposed to send an email to our physician advisor (PA) and to administration if a query is not answered within a week. However, this policy doesn’t work well because administration does not do anything with that information, and the PA doesn’t have time to review unanswered queries. Do you have any suggestions concerning when to let a query go unanswered?
A: We do suggest every clinical documentation improvement (CDI) program have well-developed query policies. These should be consistent with those policies followed by the coding department. Look at how unanswered queries are addressed on the retrospective side.
Your query policies should include clear guidance on:
- What instances queries are to be asked
- Where they are placed within the record
- Who is responsible for following through
- How queries are to be prioritized
Query policies should also include an escalation policy that describes how to handle situations in which an answer is not received, an inappropriate answer or comment is provided, etc. The escalation policy should address when the issue is brought to the PA, your department director, or administration with defined actions as to the responsibilities at each level. The policies should reflect a method of response that can realistically occur for your organization.
In my experience, if a query was unanswered, the CDI specialist and inpatient coder would discuss the need to follow up. If it was determined that the answer would provide little impact, we would close it, leaving the query unanswered. But if we concluded an answer was required, the CDI specialist would address it with the provider. There was a process of escalation in those instances when no response was received.
Ultimately, your policies should indicate what instances a query can go unanswered, and when it should be followed through. There may be instances when a query does not impact the reimbursement or quality measures and can be left unanswered. These are conversations that must be discussed within your organization.
Few organizations can boast a query response rate of 100%, but there are some things you can do to boost response rates. Take a look at your query templates or perform a query audit. There should always be choices that allow the physician to offer his or her own interpretation, or to state that there is no significance, or the answer is unknown. Often, physicians do not answer queries because they either do not like the choices offered or they are unsure exactly what is being asked.
It might be helpful to monitor physician query response rate based on the CDI specialist responsible for the account. You may find a specific CDI specialist is having difficulty writing effective queries or lacks assertiveness in following up on unanswered queries. Most programs have a time limit or goal for queries to be answered that tied to individual CDI productivity or effectiveness in the role. For example, an expectation that 80% of all queries asked will be answered within 48 hours.
Administrative support is invaluable in encouraging physician involvement in your program. Many organizations track physician response rates to queries in their physician profiling, or “quality report card” efforts. Instead of forwarding administration every unanswered query, set an acceptable response rate. When a physician falls below the suggested benchmark, the matter should be addressed by a department director, PA, or senior administration.
I also like to give positive reinforcement where it is due. Recognize those physicians who are working with you and are demonstrating a high response rate. It creates a sense of competition and, often, we catch more flies with honey.
Editor’s note: Laurie L. Prescott, RN, MSN, CCDS, CDIP, AHIMA-approved ICD-10-CM/PCS trainer, and CDI education specialist at HCPro, a division of BLR, in Danvers, Massachusetts, answered this question on the ACDIS website. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.