The Coding Problem—Why no American can develop ME/CFS, including after COVID

Mary Dimmock

Please sign this petition to fix the coding problem that makes Americans with ME/CFS invisible.

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? And if an American develops ME/CFS, would the US disease tracking systems know about it? Philosophers may debate the first question but the answer to the second is decidedly NO.

As far as US disease tracking systems are concerned, the 1-2.5 million Americans with ME/CFS patients are invisible. You can’t die of ME/CFS in the US. You won’t experience any morbidity (suffering, impairment) from ME/CFS. And you certainly won’t develop ME/CFS following an acute COVID-19 infection, in spite of the remarkable similarities noted by many researchers, including NIH’s Dr. Anthony Fauci.

That’s because the US ICD codes used to track diseases do not include a code for the term ME/CFS, the name adopted by US federal agencies and in clinical guidance. At the same time, the term “chronic fatigue syndrome,” the term most often used by US doctors, has been assigned the same ICD code as the symptom of “chronic fatigue, unspecified.”

As a result, virtually all cases of ME/CFS are effectively lost in a bucket of unspecified chronic fatigue due to any cause.

These ICD codes, short for the International Classification of Diseases, are maintained by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a globally agreed classification system to support tracking of diseases across countries. ICD codes are used to track disease mortality and morbidity and to assess disease burden and healthcare utilization and cost. In the US, they are used in insurance billing. They show up in electronic health records and are used to research issues such as the causes of and long term impact of diseases. NIH and CDC have both announced extensive plans to use electronic health records to do exactly that kind of research into Long COVID.  

But as CDC reported at a recent conference, ICD codes alone are not sufficient to find the cases of ME/CFS in these electronic health records. Doing that required an expensive and time consuming manual chart review. Such manual reviews are unlikely to be done in reporting on mortality and morbidity or in most research using electronic health records. This includes those planned Long COVID studies. The obvious impact on Americans with ME/CFS is huge.

How is this possible and why has it never been fixed?

In WHO’s current ICD, the ICD-10, ME and CFS are classified in the neurological chapter. The WHO also allows countries to create their own versions as long as they follow WHO standards. When the US implemented its version, the ICD-10-CM, in 2015, it reclassified CFS from the neurological chapter to the Symptoms and Signs chapter and gave it the same code as the symptom of “chronic fatigue, unspecified.” This is not aligned with the WHO classification and no other country has done this, making it a uniquely US problem.

Proposals to fix this were submitted in 2011, 2012, and 2018 to CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the US group that manages the ICD-10-CM. But NCHS rejected each of those proposals because of lack of stakeholder consensus, including from patients and coding associations, on how to fix the problem. As a result, cases of ME/CFS are still coded as “chronic fatigue, unspecified.”

This year, seven ME/CFS organizations (**) submitted a fourth proposal, asking for the most basic change to move this forward – to add the term ME/CFS to the ICD-10-CM and support both viral and nonviral triggers for the disease. NCHS then added additional coding changes, including some that were previously rejected.

This situation is such a gordian knot that no single set of recommendations can possibly address all stakeholder concerns. But the status quo is completely unacceptable because it leaves those with ME/CFS invisible – not coded, not counted, not researched.

For the sake of the 1-2.5 million Americans who had ME/CFS before the pandemic and for the sake of those who could develop ME/CFS following COVID-19, we must find a way to resolve this problem. Continuing to lose track of people with ME/CS in US medical records, tracking systems, and research is simply not an option.

Please sign this petition calling on the US to fix its ME/CFS coding problem.

Background on the ICD and why this is important is available on the petition site.

(*) Thanks to Dr. Robert K. Naviaux, University of California, San Diego (UCSD), CA for the idea for the title.

(**) The organizations submitting this proposal were: The International Association for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, #MEAction, Open Medicine Foundation, Solve M.E., Massachusetts ME/CFS & FM Association, the Minnesota ME/CFS Alliance, Pandora Org. 

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