Crazy ICD-10 Codes? Let’s Put Them In Perspective

The following is a guest blog post by Jennifer Della’Zanna, medical writer and online instructor for Education2Go.
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Exhibit A: W55.21XA Bitten by a cow, initial encounter

Exhibit B: Y92.241 Hurt at the library

Exhibit C: Y93.D1 Accident while knitting or crocheting

Exhibit D: W56.22 Struck by Orca, initial encounter

These are the kinds of codes trotted out to “prove” how ridiculous moving the ICD-10 coding system is. What do we need these codes for? Everybody seems to be asking this question, from congressmen to physician bloggers to—now—regular people who have never before even known what a medical code was.

Here are a few things you should know about these codes. Some of you actually should know this already, but I’ll review for those who have been sucked into the maelstrom of ridicule swirling about the new code set.

  1. You’ll notice that all those crazy code examples start with the letters V, W, X and Y. These are all “external cause codes,” found in just one of ICD-10’s 21 chapters (Chapter 20). In my version of the manual, that encompasses 76 pages. Out of 848.

    External cause codes are the only ones ever trotted out as ridiculous. Do the math. They make up 9% of the codes. They are used mainly to encode inciting factors and other details about trauma/accident situations. There are some other uses, but not many. Do most people use them in everyday coding? No. That’s not going to change with the new system. If you’re a coder who is not already using external cause coding on a day to day basis, you will likely not have to start now. Most people never look in this chapter—ever.

  2. The reason there are such funny codes is the system allows you to “build” a code using pieces, which is what makes the book so easily expandable in all the right places (which is the point of the entire code change—the external cause codes just came along for the ride). Let’s look at Exhibit A: Bitten by a cow, initial encounter:
    The first three characters of the code indicate the category. Each additional character adds some detail.W55 is the category “Contact with other mammals”The 4th character 2 indicates contact specifically a cow (although included in this code is also a bull). You can change the animal to a cat by using 0 or a horse by using 1. You get the idea, right?

    The 5th character 1 indicates that the injury is a bite. A 2 would mean the patient was struck, not bitten.

    The 6th character X is a placeholder because this code requires a 7th character extension to indicate what encounter this visit was.

    The 7th character A indicates that this was an initial encounter. You could change this to a D if the patient has returned for subsequent visits or an S if the patient ends up with another problem later that could be attributed to this original cow—or bull—bite.

  3. We can code most of those same ridiculous codes with ICD-9, although most times not quite to the same specificity. I’ll match the ones below to the exhibits we have at the top:
    Exhibit A: E906.3 Bite of other animal except arthropod

    This is what we would currently have to use for “bitten by a cow.” There is no way in the current code set to indicate whether this is an initial encounter or a follow-up encounter for this accident, however. Since the code is so vague, this code could actually also be used to mean “bitten by a platypus” or “bitten by a pink fairy armadillo,” so yes, you can still code that in ICD-9, but not as well.

    Exhibit B: E849.6 Accidents occurring in public building

    Do you consider a library a public building? I do. Yep, you can code that with ICD-9, but not as well.

    Exhibit C: E012.0 Activities involving knitting and crocheting

    This is what we call a one-to-one mapping. A specific code for this already exists in ICD-9 with exactly the same description. Next.

    Exhibit D: E906.8 Other specified injury caused by animal

    This is the code we would have to use to indicate an attack by an Orca. Again, no indication of what encounter it is, but this time there is actually no reason to even use this code because, really, what information is it giving you? The patient was injured by an animal. We have no idea what kind of injury or what animal caused it. I’m all for going to a useful code for those rare occurrences of attacks by Orcas (which, as we all know, do occur from time to time!).

The real point is not what kinds of crazy things are now able to be coded, it’s what critical things can be coded with ICD-10 that could not be coded with ICD-9. The most newsworthy one is Ebola. In ICD-9, we have to use 065.8 Other specified arthropod-borne hemorrhagic fever. In ICD-10, we have A98.4 Ebola virus disease. But there are other reasons to go to the new system. There are new concepts in ICD-10 that didn’t exist in ICD-9, like laterality. We now have the ability to indicate which side of the body an injury or other condition occurs. This inclusion is one of the biggest reasons for the book’s code expansion. Each limb and digit has its own code (but, again, it’s the changing of one number in the overall code that indicates left or right, and which digit is affected). With all the complaints about the increased documentation required for the new code set, one would hope that most physicians already document which hand or arm or leg or ear or eye or finger is affected. As I mentioned above with the seventh-character extension, there is the ability to indicate the encounter and, more importantly, to link a prior condition with a current one with the use of the S character that indicates “sequela.”

There’s much evidence that the ICD-10-CM will help make patient records more accurate and reporting of conditions more precise. This will lead to improved research abilities and a healthier worldwide population. And the ridiculing of ICD-10 codes, which I’m sure will continue long after this blog post has disappeared from your newsfeed? Well, they always say that laughter is the best medicine!

About Jennifer Della’Zanna
Jennifer Della’Zanna, MFA, CHDS, CPC, CGSC, CEHRS has worked in the allied health care industry for 20 years. Currently, she writes and edits courses and study guides on medical coding and the use of technology in health care, as well as feature articles for online and print publications.  You can find her at and on Twitter @HIMTrainer.

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