Counting Observation Hours

on Friday, 30 September 2016. All News Items | Outpatient Services | Documentation | Billing

One, Two, Three…

“Observation care is a well-defined set of specific, clinically appropriate services, which include ongoing short term treatment, assessment, and reassessment, that are furnished while a decision is being made regarding whether patients will require further treatment as hospital inpatients or if they are able to be discharged from the hospital.”

Under the two-midnight rule, hospitals may approach the decision for observation services a little differently. When a patient presents to the hospital, the first decision for the physician is, “does the patient require care in a hospital setting?” If the answer to this question is yes, then for patients with an expectation of a two-midnight stay an inpatient admission is appropriate. If the physician does not think the patient will require two midnights of care in the hospital or is unsure, then observation services are generally appropriate. When a patient who is receiving observation services approaches a second midnight in the hospital, a change to inpatient status is appropriate if the patient still requires care in a hospital setting. Considering this, it should be rare that a patient receives observation services beyond a second midnight.

Observation services are not appropriate for preparation time for outpatient testing, or for routing pre-op or post-operative services. Even with the two-midnight rule, observation services still remain a period of treatment or monitoring in order to make a decision concerning the patient’s admission or discharge.

When to Start

“Observation time begins at the clock time documented in the patient’s medical record, which coincides with the time that observation care is initiated in accordance with a physician’s order.”

What does this mean exactly? First, there must be a physician’s order for observation before observation services can begin. Observation orders cannot be back-dated. For example, when condition code 44 is used to change a patient’s status from inpatient to outpatient, observation services do not begin until there is an order for observation (which would be after the change to outpatient status). Observation services would begin at the time that order was written.

If the patient is already actively receiving care, such as in the example above, then observation begins at the time the observation order is written. For patients being transferred to a room after an observation order is written, observation care may not begin until the patient begins to receive evaluation and/or care in the hospital room.


Observation hours are rounded to the nearest hour. This means everything from 9:01 through 9:29 is rounded to 9:00 and from 9:31 to 9:59 is rounded to 10:00. 9:30 is ambiguous and could be rounded either way. The example in the Medicare manual is a patient receiving observation services from 3:03 p.m. until 9:45 p.m. – this equals 7 hours of obs.

Concurrent Active Monitoring

“Observation services should not be billed concurrently with diagnostic or therapeutic services for which active monitoring is a part of the procedure (e.g., colonoscopy, chemotherapy).”

Medicare does not provide a list or any examples beyond the two noted in the statement above for what constitutes a procedure with “active monitoring.” This is something the hospital will have to determine, but generally includes near-constant monitoring by a nurse or other health care professional. If such a procedure occurs during a period of observation, the hospital must subtract or “carve out” that time from the total observation hours. This could be accomplished by using the beginning and ending time of the procedure, or Medicare allows hospitals to use an “average length of time” for interrupting procedures and deduct that amount of time from the observation hours.

When to End

“Observation time ends when all medically necessary services related to observation care are completed.”

Observation ending time may not coincide with the time of the physician’s discharge order. Sometimes necessary medical care may end prior to the discharge order or care may extend beyond the time of the discharge order. If after care has ended, the patient is waiting for transportation home, the waiting time should not be included in observation time.

Observation hours end when an order is written to admit the patient as an inpatient. The observation services will be bundled into the inpatient claim, but for accurate records this is when observation counting stops.

Why Bother?

Isn’t observation packaged, so why does the counting of observation hours matter? Well, yes, but no. The outpatient claim line item for observation services, billed with HCPCS code G0378, is a packaged service and receives no separate payment. However, if certain criteria are met, an observation comprehensive APC is paid for the associated visit code, such as any level ED visit, an outpatient clinic visit, or a direct referral for observation services. If 8 or more hours of observation are billed with a visit code and without a primary procedure (status indicator J1) on the claim or surgical procedure (status indicator T) on the day of or before obs, then the claim qualifies for an observation comprehensive APC payment. For 2016, the unadjusted national Medicare payment for the obs C-APC is $2174.14. Definitely worth following the rules.

Hospitals have been dealing with observation services for a long time and most providers probably have their systems down on how to accurately count and report observation services. But a reminder of the rules never hurts.

Article by Debbie Rubio

Debbie Rubio, BS, MT (ASCP), is the Manager of Regulatory Affairs and Compliance at Medical Management Plus, Inc. Debbie has over twenty-seven years of experience in healthcare including nine years as the Clinical Compliance Coordinator at a large multi-facility health system. In her current position, Debbie monitors, interprets and communicates current and upcoming regulatory and compliance issues as they relate to specific entities concerning Medicare and other payers. You may contact Debbie at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


This material was compiled to share information. MMP, Inc. is not offering legal advice. Every reasonable effort has been taken to ensure the information is accurate and useful.

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