Tom Still: Book captures comical interface between technology, health care codes and art

This is an excerpt from a column posted at BizOpinion.

Imagine you’re a doctor with a patient who was bitten by a dolphin. The precise code for reporting that medical calamity is W56.01.

Triaging some poor soul who was sucked into a jet engine? There’s a code for that, too: V97.33xD.

Treating someone who was injured by an explosion on board a sailboat? Yep, that’s V93.54xD.

There are also medical reporting codes for “inadequate social skills, not elsewhere classified” (Z73.4), “other contact with shark” (W56.49), “forced landing of spacecraft injuring occupant” (V95.42xA) and, of particular Wisconsin interest, “burn due to water skis on fire” (V91.07xD).

Welcome to the arcane, often humorous and yet entirely serious world of computerized medical codes. These codes are used countless times daily by medical professionals across the United States to classify patient ailments and how much those patients, and their insurers, should pay for a specific treatment.

They’re also used to track medical threats and trends – flu outbreaks, for example – and analyze what treatments actually work and which don’t.

A new set of federal codes, known as I.C.D.-10, will take effect Oct. 1, with 68,000 separate codes for diagnoses and 87,000 more for procedures. That’s compared to about 17,000 total in the current I.C.D-9 code system, which means ailments as “pedestrian on foot injured in collision with roller-skater” (V00.01xD) and “struck by a non-venomous lizard” (w59.02xA) will get their very own codes.

The build-up to I.C.D.-10 is why a group of Madison-based health IT experts and artists combined to produce “Struck by Orca,” an illustrated guide to some of the more obscure and often hilarious situations that have found their way into the federal code.

Niko Skievaski, a former Epic Systems employee who has helped launch the 100state co-working space for entrepreneurs, has sold about 2,000 copies since it was published in November. The idea was born during a light-hearted conversation with other health IT coders and software experts during an outdoor concert on Madison’s Capitol Square, and grew into matching whimsical art with obscure codes.

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