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Why Britain has 17,000 pregnant men

at 02:00 PM ET, 04/07/2012


(Waltraud Grubitsch - AFP/Getty Images)
The data seemed, at first glance, like it could be indicative of a medical miracle. Between 2009 and 2010, thousands of British men turned up at hospitals to be treated for many pregnancy-related services, things like obstetric exams and midwife services. All told, there were 17,000 of them.

Was “Junior” (the 1994 classic where Arnold Schwarzenegger conceives) happening in real life, and en masse? A team of researchers in London conceded that these statistics did indeed “seem to reveal some interesting service developments.”

Rest assured, a wave of male pregnancy has not swept Britain. Instead, researchers studying the data think they’re the result of something way more boring: medical coding errors. Mistakes in data entry are, admittedly, a much less exciting development than a rash of pregnant men. But it’s one that poses as much of a challenge to modern medicine as a would learning to understand male conception.

This research, published as a letter this week in the British Medical Journal, was meant to draw attention to how much data gets entered incorrectly in the country’s medical system. These guys weren’t turning up at the doctor for pregnancy-related services. Instead, they were at their doctor for procedures that had medical codes similar to those of midwifery and obstetric services. With a misplaced keystroke here or there, an annual physical could become a consultation with a midwife.

“We suspect that the numbers may, at least partly, reflect data errors,” write Laura Brennan, Mando Watson and Robert Klaber. “Some of these may be due to similarities in the main specialty codes.”

Right now, the health care industry here in the United States is engaged in a fierce debate about how we should code our medical procedures. We use something called the International Classification of Diseases or, in medical jargon, the ICD. It’s pretty much a laundry list of codes that describe various diagnoses and medical procedures.

Providers currently use the ninth version of the ICD, which has about 18,000 medical billing codes. The government has been trying to move the system onto the newer, 10th version of the ICD, which has a lot more codes, about 140,000 of them.

There’s been a lot of fighting over whether we should move to the new ICD. Critics say that it’s everything that’s wrong with American health care: too many codes, too bureaucratic and aggressively regulated. Supporters contend that using the new data will provide more granular information about how we use health care, allowing for better data analysis.

One strike against moving to the new system, however, is that it could create a country with a lot more accidentally pregnant men. With 140,000 medical codes to choose from, each denoting a very specific medical condition, there’s a pretty wide margin for error. Putting the pros and cons of male conception aside, it does seem like one concern to keep in mind as the country debates moving to an increasingly complex system for organizing our medical data.

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