Spacecraft Collision? Hang-glider Fire? There’s a Code for That.

A new medical coding system allows your doctor to be specific about the cause of injury. Very specific.

In 1924, there wasn't a code for this. A U.S. Army Air Corps Curtiss NBS-1 nosed over in a plowed field.

It’s a dangerous world out there. But you can relax: it can now be documented fully. As of October 1, health care workers, using the revised International Classification of Diseases, can identify and report thousands of injuries—to a very specific degree.

Injured while boarding or alighting from an aircraft? Use code V97.1XXA. Sustain burns in a hang-glider fire? That’s V96.14XA. Forced to land your spacecraft? V95.42XA. Sucked into a jet engine for the second time? V97.33XD.

The ICD system dates back to Florence Nightingale, who was horrified by the statistical records kept during the Crimean War. Nightingale’s subsequent report—showing that for every soldier who died from his wounds, seven others died from disease—was given to the War Office and Army Medical Department. The report made a profound impression, eventually leading in 1900 to the first attempts to classify causes of death by hospital, region, and country. 

The International Classification of Diseases document was revised in 1909, 1920, and 1929. During those years there weren’t separate codes for aircraft or balloon fatalities (physicians could use “Injury by Machines,” if necessary). It wasn’t until the 1938 revision that aviation categories were added, including “Air Transport Accidents” (code 173) and code 196 (“Deaths of persons in military service during operations at war”).

The 1948 revision, as one might expect, became much more specific, with six aviation categories, including “Accident to personnel in military aircraft” (E860) and “Aircraft accident at airfield to person not in aircraft” (E864). (In contrast, there were more than 200 categories for motor vehicle accidents, including “Motor vehicle accident involving railway train” and “Motor vehicle accident involving collision with animal-drawn vehicle.”) No updates were made to the aviation portion of the 1955 revision.

In 1965 and 1975, the category was broadened to include “Air and space transport accidents” (totaling some 48 separate codes). With the latest revision, helicopters, spacecraft, and gliders each get separate categories. (All other modes of flight are incorporated into “aircraft.”)

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