Skin Grafts Medical Coding – When to Use One or Two Codes?

Q: Skin Grafts Medical Coding – If you have a patient that is getting an autologous split thickness graft, taken from the thigh and attached to the tip of the nose, is it alright to use one code like 15120 for the harvesting and attachment? Is it OK if you don’t need two codes, how do I know when to use one or two codes for a procedure?

A: The bottom-line is, you’re most likely going to be reporting two codes. When I teach this in class, I tell the students to think about if you’ve ever had to lay sod down. Maybe it’s a new home or you had to dig up your yard and you had to put new grass down because you want to be there more quickly, so you don’t just buy the sod and just plunk it down and hope for the best. You prepare the soil before you lay the sod down so that the roots will take and grow and live there as if it was always there.

It’s the same with skin grafts. We need to prepare that recipient site and then we need to report the grafting code. It’s really a two-code story.

Skin Grafts Medical Coding – When to Use One or Two Codes?- Video

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What I did here is I just grabbed a few. There’s many skin grafting codes in the integumentary system so I just grabbed a couple here. On the left hand side, I had the surgical prep bubbles. If you’re familiar with our teaching techniques, we tend to bubble our CPT codes and highlight everything after the semicolon.

These are the two bubbles in the surgical prep. We’ve got the 15002 bubble and the 15004 bubble. The way we teach it is always compare and contrast, what’s the difference between these two bubbles? When you look closely, its location, location, location. So, the first bubble is of the trunk, arm or legs; and the second bubble is of everything else: face, scalp, eyelids, mouth, neck, ears, orbits, genitalia, hands, feet, and/or multiple digits.

What those areas have to do with each other? I don’t really know. But, you’ve got your top code that is for the first 100 sq cm. And the indented code in each bubble is for each additional 100 sq cm, or part thereof. This phrase “or part thereof” I think they added around 2009, and I was very glad because I would get this a lot as an instructor.

Well, do I need to have another full 100 sq cm? What if I have 150? Well, now that they’ve added that phrase, “or part thereof” you would report 15002, for example, for the first 100 and then you report the add-on code, 15003, for the additional 50. You do not need to have a full 100 to code the add-on code because of that phrase “or part thereof.” So I was very happy to see that because it made it very clear.

The other thing when you’re dealing with this is to know when they’re talking about trunk, arms, or legs, versus all the other areas, are they talking about the donor area, like, in the example of this question, the thigh was the donor area and the nose was the recipient, so we want to code based on the recipient area. That’s in the guidelines for the skin grafting, so be aware of that.

What I like to do when I teach my students is write it down in every bubble: recipient, recipient, recipient. So, when you’re doing it on the job or for a board exam, it jumps right out at you, there’s no digging in the guidelines to find that it’s right there.

The other side of the story is coding the actual graft procedure itself. Here, I’ve got two bubbles, the 15100 bubble and the 15120 bubble. And as you may have already guessed, the difference between the two is location, location, location; so the 15100 mirrors the 15002. This is for the trunk, arms, and legs; and the 15120 is for the face, scalp and everything else.

They do the same thing, first 100 sq cm, each additional 100 or part thereof. These are both split thickness auto grafts. There are many other types of grafts, there’s full thickness. You can use these dermal skin grafts which are, if you picture the skin, you have the epidermis and then you have the dermis, that’s the true skin. So, whenever you see skin and already see split thickness, just think of that dermis. Then, below it, you have “subcu” (subcutaneous); you go down to fascia, muscle and bone.

Split thickness and full thickness, these are all indicating they’re coming from the patient themselves versus a cadaver. They do have allografts and homografts that come from cadaver. So, just like there were blood banks, there’s also skin banks, tendon banks, and in areas to get this kind of tissue. Just be aware that there’re lots of different bubbles in the skin grafting. I picked these two because the question was specifically asking about a split thickness graft. OK?

These are also of the recipient site, so in our example where they’re transferring it from the thigh to the nose, the recipient site is the nose; so we’re going to be in this bubble, the 15120 bubble. So, that’s how the grafting works. I have a few notes here.

By the way, all of these answer sheets we provide to our Replay Club members and they get all the answer sheets. On the live webinar, you get to hear everything, you get to get all the information and the 1.5 CEUs, but the Replay Club members get all these great answer sheets.

Here are some tips, you want to know the type of graft. Autograft – from the patient; there’s split (through part of the dermis); full is going all the way, the whole dermis. And if you think about that sod illustration, the more you take from the original area, the deeper you go, the better it’s going to take on where you transplant it; but it’s also going to be more damaging to the original area.

In this example of the thigh to the nose, if they took a full thickness, and you’re going to have a pretty bad scar on the thigh, it’s like a tradeoff when you’re doing an autograft. Dermal – these are fairly new codes for dermal; they literally take the full dermis and then they cut it in half, and then they put the upper layer back on the original donor area and they take that middle layer and use it on the recipient area. That’s pretty neat.

For a long time, like, “Alright, they’ve got dermal, they’ve got split. I don’t get it.” So, I finally just googled it, that’s what I tell everybody, “Try to Google and be your own researcher and you can find the answers.” If you’re like, “Hmm, I wonder why that’s like this, or different” just Google it and you’ll probably be able to help yourself.

We talked about allografts and homografts – those are from cadavers. “Allo” and “homo” means “same” so in this case, same species. Then we’ve got skin substitutes, that uses the medical term “xeno” – xenograft. Xenografts can be an animal graft, like, porcine, comes from a pig. Then, there’s this man made. They actually use material that is totally not organic or biologic. Just be aware of those differences so you can abstract for that in the reports.

You’ll also see in the skin grafting section, culturing or not. Sometimes they’ll take, let’s just say that with our example from the thigh, they’ll take it and they’ll culture, put it in some sort of solution to make it take better when they put it on the recipient’s site; so there’s a little bit of a delay from when they take it from the donor area and they culture it, and then they put it on the recipient’s area.

We talked about #3, Recipient or Donor Area – the graft codes are usually based on recipient area. Be aware of that. And that’s why in this case, the donor area was the thigh and the recipient was the nose; so we went with the nose bubble.

The other big thing to be aware of are measurements. You’ll notice that everything in CPT is in centimeters, not inches, so be aware of that. If you have a report or, God forbid, they put it in inches, you will have to convert it. Sq cm is just length x width. There’s a lot of math in the integumentary system. I always say think about getting carpet for your living room, how would you figure it out? Length times width, and that’s what we’re talking about here because they’re trying to figure out how vast an area are we talking about.

Then, we talked about “or part thereof.” Be aware of that, that you only need to have a portion of that add-on code to be able to report the whole add-on code. That is the answer for our skin grafts.

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2 thoughts on “Skin Grafts Medical Coding – When to Use One or Two Codes?”

  1. if a physician does take a “full thickness” graft from say the upper back for the face (cheek, lip and nose) what is the diagnosis for the upper back? since the burn is on the face cheek, lip and nose those are the third degree burns, but the ‘harvest” full thickness from upper back caused a secondary defect, so does that use “open wound back Dx?”

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