By the numbers



An old joke about old jokes:

Three men have been friends for so long that to save time they tell jokes by number.

“38,” says one. Laughter.

“82,” says another. “That’s a good one!” say the others.

A puzzled onlooker decides to join in. “14!” he says. Stony silence. “What’s the matter?” he asks.

“You told it wrong,” they say.

Numbers are on my mind these days. ICD-10 is here. So many numbers. So little time.

As you recall, the ICD-10 rolled out on Oct. 1 after a year of postponement. Just before that date, a government spokesman sternly announced that doctors hoping for another reprieve were pipe-dreaming. “There will be no further delays,” he said. “Our ability to track Ebola and other epidemics depends on ICD-10.”

Ebola? Google helped me to understand. In the words of one health care consultant, ICD-9 has no specific code for Ebola, forcing doctors to use code 078.89: Other specified diseases due to viruses. This gave U.S. doctors no way to report and track Ebola. People were dying from inadequate classification.

I told this to a nonphysician friend, who asked, “Couldn’t they just make up a code for Ebola?” But that cannot be a good question, because no one of importance has asked it.

Now we have what we need: A98.4, Ebola virus disease, nestled between A98.1, Omsk hemorrhagic fever, and A98.8, Other specified viral hemorrhagic fevers. Note that these “Others” are specified. You must specify.

Now we can code for Ebola. And we have ICD-10, installed at a cost of untold billions of dollars spent by doctors, hospitals, billing services, and insurers. Armies of consultants stand ready to help all parties deal with the conversion. Things are bound to be better, though, for health care and for patients.

It is easy to make fun of ICD-10 by citing absurdities: V91.00XA, Burn due to merchant ship on fire, initial encounter. V97.33XD, Sucked into jet engine, subsequent encounter. (When will the silly fellow learn not to stand so close to jet engines?)

A truer flavor of dealing with the new classification system, however, comes from the degree of specificity – what the business-school types like to call granularity – that we now have to provide for the ordinary problems we clinicians encounter every day:

D23.10 Benign neoplasm, skin of eyelid.

D23.11 Other benign neoplasm of skin of right eyelid.

D23.12 Other benign neoplasm of skin of left eyelid.

Ditto for the ear, including external auditory canal, right or left (D23.21 and D23.22), unspecified parts of the face (D23.30), scalp and neck (D23.4), trunk (D23.5), right and left upper limb including shoulder, (D23.61 and D23.62), right and left lower limb, including hip (D23.71 and D23.72.) If you don’t know what side the lesion is on, you can use D23.70, Other benign neoplasm of skin of unspecified lower limb, including hip. But don’t use an unspecified code. We will be paid less if we don’t specify. Or so they say. Who knows, really? Even the payers don’t seem to know yet. We will find out.

I have a pain in an unspecified upper limb. I won’t say which. You will have to guess.

The same goes not just for skin cancers but for furuncles, lipomas, and so on. Furuncle of foot: L02.629. Furuncle of neck: L02.12. Furuncle of perineum: L02.225. There is also L02.229, furuncle of trunk, unspecified. Don’t go there. Specify. It is vital that we collect data on precisely which body parts furunculize.

In a current film, Matt Damon plays a man on Mars. Were he to return, he might look at all of this coding granularity and think the world has gone mad.

But that cannot be true, since no one of importance thinks so. And then of course there is Ebola.

Jokes by the numbers. Diseases by the numbers. Patients by the numbers. That’s why we became doctors, isn’t it? I don’t recall. It’s been a long time.

I end with a reverie:

The three men who tell jokes by numbers are sitting at tables. Each faces a rectangular card covered with white squares bordered in black. Red counters fill some of the squares.

The interloper who can’t tell a joke stands before them. “Toenail fungus,” he says.

One of the men leaps up.

“B35.1!” he cries.


Dr. Rockoff practices dermatology in Brookline, Mass., and is a longtime contributor to Dermatology News. He serves on the clinical faculty at Tufts University, Boston, and has taught senior medical students and other trainees for 30 years. Write to him at [email protected].

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