Uncovering the Hidden Challenges: Evaluating the Sensitivity of ICD-10 Clinical Coding for Sepsis in Children

Clinical coding, the process of translating medical records into standardised codes, has been a cornerstone in healthcare. Notably, the International Classification of Diseases 10th Edition (ICD-10), is the gold standard utilised globally to quantify disease burdens. However, a recent population-based study raises some troubling concerns about the accuracy and sensitivity of ICD-10 coding in detecting sepsis in children.

The Aim of the Study

The study, conducted by Endrich et al. (2023), aimed to evaluate how effectively ICD-10 coding captures instances of sepsis in children who were admitted to the hospital with confirmed bacterial or fungal infections and systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS). The Swiss Pediatric Sepsis Study carried out the research, which involved a secondary analysis of a multicentre, prospective cohort study on children with proven sepsis.

Understanding the Results

The study encompassed 998 hospital admissions of children with confirmed sepsis. The sensitivity of the ICD-10 coding abstraction, referring to its ability to correctly identify positive cases, was found to be 60% for sepsis, and only 35% for sepsis with organ dysfunction, employing an explicit abstraction strategy. The sensitivity increased marginally to 65% when using an implicit abstraction strategy. Alarmingly, for septic shock, the sensitivity was a mere 43%.

The agreement of ICD-10 coding abstraction with validated study data varied depending on the underlying infection type and disease severity. Thus, the estimated national incidence of sepsis, inferred from ICD-10 coding abstraction, was 12.5 per 100,000 children, considerably lower than the 21.0 per 100,000 children determined using validated study data.

The Implications

This research reveals a sobering reality: ICD-10 coding may considerably underestimate the prevalence of sepsis in children, with poor representation of sepsis and sepsis with organ dysfunction in particular. For healthcare providers, clinicians, and researchers, these findings emphasise the need for vigilance and attention to detail in the clinical coding process. It also highlights the importance of continually reviewing and improving coding practices to ensure they accurately reflect patient conditions.

Clinical Coding: A Critical Pathway to Accurate Diagnosis

Clinical coding, including the use of the ICD-10, plays an essential role in healthcare. The process allows clinicians to understand a patient’s health history and status accurately, facilitating effective treatment strategies and care. Furthermore, correct coding is integral to healthcare funding and research, influencing healthcare policy and resource allocation.

However, the limitations of ICD-10 coding identified in the study necessitate an urgent reevaluation of the system’s sensitivity to specific conditions, particularly in paediatric populations. A consistent underestimation of sepsis incidence could have far-reaching consequences, leading to inadequate resource allocation, ineffective policy decisions, and most critically, a delay in the initiation of lifesaving treatments.

Moving Forward

The need for accurate clinical coding has never been more crucial. The challenges uncovered in this study underscore the need to improve our current systems and practices, ensuring we accurately capture the true prevalence of diseases like sepsis. Future efforts should focus on refining clinical coding methodologies and raising awareness about these issues among healthcare professionals.

The work of Endrich and her team provides a significant wake-up call to the healthcare industry. It’s clear that when it comes to clinical coding and sepsis detection, there’s room for improvement, but recognising the issue is the first crucial step in overcoming it.


Endrich, O., Triep, K., Schlapbach, L. J., Posfay-Barbe, K. M., Heininger, U., Giannoni, E., Stocker, M., Niederer-Loher, A., Kahlert, C. R., Natalucci, G., Relly, C., Riedel, T., Aebi, C., Berger, C., & Agyeman, P. K. A. (2023). Sensitivity of ICD coding for sepsis in children-a population-based study. Swiss Pediatric Sepsis Study. DOI: 10.1007/s44253-023-00006-1

Related Articles


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.