How Coding Guidelines Define “New Patient”

The distinction between new patient and established patient is vital for correct evaluation and management (E/M) code assignment, coding compliance, and reimbursement.

CPT defines an established patient as one who “has received a professional service from the physician/qualified health care professional or another physician/qualified health care professional of the exact same specialty and sub-specialty who belongs to the same group practice, within the past three years.”

Within the context of E/M code selection, CPT defines a professional service as “those face-to-face services rendered by physicians and other qualified health care professionals who may report evaluation and management services reported by a specific CPT code(s).” The “face-to-face” nature of a professional service is important: CMS policy  confirms, “An interpretation of a diagnostic test, reading an x-ray or EKG etc., in the absence of an E/M service or other face-to-face service with the patient does not affect the designation of a new patient.” A patient is new, for instance, if the physician interpreted test results two years earlier, but had provided no face-to-face service to the patient within the previous three years.

The second requirement addresses patient status relative to other providers in a group practice. When a patient becomes established with a physician who works in group practice, the patient is established with all physicians of the same specialty/sub-specialty in the group. The AMA allows an exception for new physician’s seeing for the first time a patient established to the practice. CPT Assistant, November 2008, features the following Q&A:

Question: Can new physicians who come on board to a group practice with their own tax identification numbers charge a new evaluation and management code for patients they see?

Answer: According to CPT guidelines, a new patient is one who has received no professional services from the physician or another physician of the same specialty who belongs to the same group practice within the past three years. Also, if a physician is new to this group practice and had never seen or billed a patient previously though his tax ID number, this should be considered a new patient for the purposes of this physician billing for his evaluation and management service.

Not all payers agree with this logic: inquire with your individual payers before billing as new any patient who is established with another physician of the same specialty/sub-specialty within a group.

Two providers in the same practice may both classify a patient as new, if they see the patient for different reasons and the providers are of different specialties recognized by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). For a list of Medicare-recognized physician specialties, visit the CMS website. CPT guidelines specify, “When advanced practice nurses and physician assistants are working with physicians they are considered as working in the exact same specialty and exact same sub-specialties as the physician.”

For example, a general surgeon in a large multiple-specialty practice sees a patient in 2015 to remove some skin lesions. In early 2017, the same patient sees an internist—who is a member of the same multispecialty practice as the surgeon who previously treated the patient previously—for a new condition. Because the surgeon and internist (who are of different specialties) saw the patient for unrelated problems, the internist may report the initial visit using the new patient codes (e.g., 99201-99205).

If a provider is covering for another provider, a patient’s status is relative to the provider who is unavailable (not the covering provider). For example, Dr. Smith is covering for Dr. Jones, who is on a family vacation. Patients who are established with Dr. Jones would be treated as established with Dr. Smith, even if Dr. Smith has not seen the patient previously.

Finally, note that location doesn’t affect a patient’s “new” or “established” status. CPT Assistant (June 1999) explains:

Consider Dr A, who leaves his group practice in Frankfort, Illinois and joins a new group practice in Rockford, Illinois. When he provides professional services to patients in the Rockford practice, will he report these patients as new or established?

If Dr A, or another physician of the same specialty in the Rockford practice, has not provided any professional services to that patient within the past three years, then Dr A would consider the patient a new patient. However, if Dr A, or another physician of the same specialty in the Rockford practice, has provided any professional service to that patient within the past three years, the patient would then be considered an established patient to Dr A.

In other words, where the patient is seen doesn’t matter. If the provider treats a patient face-to-face service within the previous three years (in any location), that patient is established (in all locations).

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