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Get to Know SNOMED (and Its Connection to ICD-10)

by Brian Anderson, MD, Senior Manager, Clinical Effectiveness

When I first heard of SNOMED during a medical school pathology rotation, images of cold winter flurries filled my head. Little did I know that, 12 years later, our industry would be on the verge of transitioning to SNOMED via a massive federal mandate.

The name SNOMED is short for Systematized Nomenclature of Medicine, a health care terminology set whose roots are the merger between one terminology from the College of American Pathologists and another from the National Health Service of the UK. SNOMED was created with the hope of providing a way to describe and define clinical information in a standardized and hierarchical manner that would allow for cross-mapping to other international standards of classification, like ICD-10.

The current SNOMED standard we use today was initially released in 2007, and is required as part of Stage 2 Meaningful Use and is vital in the hefty transition to ICD-10. This means that every provider in the U.S. will need to learn a lot about SNOMED really, really soon… so here is a crash course.

ICD-10
Just because SNOMED’s architecture is complicated, that doesn’t mean it’s difficult to use—SNOMED is actually easy for physicians to understand. It’s a grouping of terminology sets written in physician-friendly syntax and intuitively organized.

In contrast, ICD-10 is not so physician-friendly. It’s incredibly granular, with a large string of alpha-numeric characters tied to each diagnosis, and text descriptions that are dizzyingly complex. As a result, everyone in the health care information technology industry is faced with how to help providers navigate this new world easily and intuitively.

Today, the athenahealth SNOMED team (that’s correct, we have a team solely devoted to SNOMED) is hard at work configuring the terminology set into our products so that providers will be able to a) navigate and easily use SNOMED to document in a patient’s chart, and b) choose an appropriate ICD-10 code. Because SNOMED offers a much more provider-friendly terminology set, we are using it to help ease the ICD-10 transition.

Stage 2 Meaningful Use
Stage 2 Meaningful Use criteria expand upon Stage 1 with the intention of improving cross-electronic health record (EHR) communication and collaboration. To enable this better interaction, EHRs will need to speak a consistent terminology set. Enter SNOMED.

Stage 2 has defined SNOMED as the terminology set that all EHRs will be required to use as part of two sections of a patient’s chart, the Problem List and Family History. Sounds simple, right? Unfortunately, SNOMED is fairly complex, just like those idyllic snowflakes I thought of back in medical school. SNOMED is structured into 19 different hierarches, each of which is further broken down into increasingly granular clinical concepts.

We’ve Got Your Back
With the transition to ICD-10 and Stage 2 Meaningful Use occurring at the same time, providers who take on both without some help are going to be in for a big shock. These are sizable initiatives that would pose a challenge to just about any practice. Those caregivers who do not have an EHR team dedicated to ensuring their successful navigation of ICD-10 and Stage 2 are going to struggle. I am personally excited to be part of a team building an intuitive, streamlined path into this brave new world, utilizing SNOMED as part of that bridge. As I mentioned earlier, by using SNOMED, not only are we helping clients satisfy Stage 2 Meaningful Use, but we’re also helping them navigate the complicated world of ICD-10. We stand ready to help every provider in our network through the ICD-10 transition.

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