Gary Tetz

I know it’s conventional wisdom to avoid talking about sensitive issues for fear of offending or angering someone, but sometimes things happen that require a writer to take a principled public stand, regardless of the consequences. 

That’s why today, without fear of reprisal, let’s talk about typos. 

This topic has long been a hot button for me, and my strong feelings were reawakened by a recent McKnight’s headline: “Judge sides with provider after typo results in $278K penalty.”

As the article explains, the error occurred in a routine data submission to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which then crankily imposed a 2% Medicare payment reduction.  Talk about a tempest in a typo.

Though my natural inclination, honed over many years of writing for this profession and knowing clearly which side my bread is buttered on, is to favor the provider, I have to side with CMS on this one.* Not because I understand the complexities of this case and can credibly render judgement, but because so seldom anymore does a poor speller actually pay a price.

Back in the good old days, bad spelling actually embarrassed people and even governments. A missing hyphen in computer code allegedly caused the Mariner 1 space probe to veer off course in 1962, forcing a humiliated NASA to destroy the craft five minutes after take-off. The mistake cost about $18.5 million, which science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke dubbed “the most expensive hyphen in history.” 

But these days, otherwise sane and intelligent people seem to misspell with impunity and even a warped sense of pride and joy. Errors are pervasive and glaring in resumes, business emails and official documents, not to mention the illiterate swamp of social media. 

Perhaps most pernicious are typos in texts because I suspect that’s ground zero for why proper spelling has become so hopelessly passé. We’ve all done it — looked down at a message our clumsy thumbs have composed, seen an egregious error, and were simply too busy or too lazy to fix it. Over time and repetition, accuracy has thus been devalued and the difference between right and wrong terminally eroded.  

The real tragedy, though, isn’t the typos themselves. It’s the way repeat offenders simply don’t seem to even remotely care. Go ahead, call one of them on it. “Okay, Boomer, what’s the big deel?” they’re likely to respond. “Ha ha, isn’t it adoorable how I cant spell, LOL.” 

So in the context of this no-consequence, fact-challenged hellscape in which we currently exist, when CMS acts to restore some sense of decency and dignity in defense of the integrity of language and clear communication, how can I not applaud? 

Reasonable people can disagree, of course, about what a proper penalty should be for one small typo — probably somewhere between a warning and public execution. But if $278,000 is what it takes for accuracy to triumph, let it thus be so.

*Important Disclaimer: I know almost nothing about this case. I am not a lawyer. I don’t even know what the typo actually was. My attention was entirely fixated on the lurid headline, and though I skimmed the rest of the piece, its complexities made me extremely sleepy. Like just about everyone else these days, I’m exhausted by the pursuit of actual facts or nuanced understanding, and am simply using this article irresponsibly to express tangential outrage. If you’re the provider referenced, please don’t be offended. I entirely support your quest to get the penalty reduced or eliminated, and salute the good work you do on behalf of vulnerable patients.  

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He’s been amusing, inspiring, informing and sometimes befuddling long-term care readers worldwide since the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.