Sunday, November 29, 2015

Dreaming of the EHR

The Dream:

I am at the APA convention.

It is in a crummy hotel attached to a mall. I am going down to the street level in an elevator and it stops at a level where there is a big cinema complex. An 8 year old boy runs excitedly into the elevator and jams in to my left. The elevator is crowded. He looks at my name badge and says: "What would George Dawson say if the Watson computer said he wasn't doing a good job?"

I glance down at him and say: "George Dawson would not care."

The kid says: "That's not good" and laughs intensely.......

It is all a dream. I had that dream early Saturday morning. It doesn't require detailed analysis. That last thing I did on Friday was try to review a 22-page paper record that was generated by a modern electronic health record (EHR) system. With the exception of a few paragraphs it was largely unintelligible. It contained bits and pieces of information. I was looking for imaging (CT, MRI, ultrasound reports) and ECG data, but instead could find only a few lines that summarized fewer results. There were no dates - no hospital admission or discharge date.  Although the hospitalization was longer than a week - there was no medication administration record or MAR - showing the specific dates when medications were changed.  There were no comprehensive reports that I am used to seeing for the past 30 years from Radiologists. There was no discharge summary. The documentation was basically unacceptable as a source of clinical information and yet it was created by a very high end, enterprise wide EHR system. It brought back a memory of a mandatory meeting I had with a "coding specialist" about 10 years ago. That person let me know that I had "passed" the documentation review in that I had ticked off the necessary "bullet points" so that documentation specialists would approve my EHR note for the day and the associated billing document that had to be submitted with each note.  She showed me how I could do things faster by ticking off a series of check boxes and electronically signing the note.  She was shocked when I told her that I really could not sign my name to that document because there was no sign that an intelligent human being had seen the patient.  For all of these reasons, very poor documentation in the EHR is always on my mind.

My attempt to read the last report may have been enough of a reason for the dream, but I also spent time on Thursday with a colleague who really dislikes the EHR for additional reasons. We regaled our spouses with tales of incomprehensible reports.  In addition, his reports require a synthesis of many imaging, lab, and clinical reports.  He previously used a system where all of the reports showed up in a queue and he could go down that list in chronological order to dictate the report.  In the new system, he has to go to tabs to find all of the reports he is looking for.  Some of these tabs are hyperlinked and the reports don't load very well.  In the end, he and his colleagues end up printing out all of the reports on paper so they can dictate then more efficiently without having to search for what they need in real time in the EHR.  That reminded me of an experiment I did about 8 years ago with the same EHR.  I went in and read all of the clinical notes looking for chronic diagnoses that were not addressed.  I came up with an additional 8 diagnoses from 340 clinical notes buried in the EHR. There is generally no good way for physicians to mine data on their own patients to make sure that they have done the most thorough assessment of their problems.  On the other hand administrators can get detailed numbers of mouse clicks by nurses in primary care clinics and rate their productivity in terms of mouse clicks, screen views, or tasks completed.  My colleague's theory was that the current EHR is selected for the administrative capabilities like monitoring doctors or nurses rather than any inherent advantage for medical staff.  The major evidence for that is that many EHR vendors have permanent staff in the hospital and they are making constant modifications to the EHR.  In many cases there are meetings of all the physicians in a particular department about these modifications.  The hospitals and clinics purchasing these systems are purchasing incomplete products that require what seems like constant revisions.

It has been about 15 years since the blight of the EHR hit physicians.  It was originally called the electronic medical record (EMR) but I suppose some business type decided that they could really solidify the corporate stranglehold on medicine by eliminating the word "medical" from another phrase.  Corporate psychology also dictates that they give the impression that they are maintaining health rather than treating medical problems.  That is another good reason for eliminating the word medical from the corporate lexicon.

The marketing of the EHR has been masterful.  The political hype promised untold savings.  National candidates seemed to suggest that we could actually "save" enough with the EHR that it would cover a substantial part of American health care inflation.  Any physician involved in the implementation phase of enterprise EHRs knew that was a bold faced lie.  There is no way that annual multimillion dollar a year licensing fees as far as the eye can see are going to save anybody any money.  In fact, I am certain that many clinics and hospitals have had to cut staff and services just to bankroll the EHR. Nobody has ever followed the money on the EHR debacle as far as I know.  Congress is well known to invent businesses and turn people into billionaires overnight.  All it takes is a few Congressional mandates about the need to use an EHR and electronic prescribing.  There is no mandate to keep things cost effective of make sure that independent practitioners can afford it.  There are mandates to implement EHRs and electronic prescribing and the White House brags about it.  The following graphic and text are from a White House document on the EHR entitled: More than Half of Doctors Now Use Electronic Health Records Thanks to Administration Policies.

The problem with the White House statement is that despite spending about $3 billion dollars a year and in some cases $44,000 per physician,  the value of the EHR for the reasons already stated remains in question.  It is very handy to be able to pull up lab results and x-rays on a computer screen.  It is also very handy to be able to send electronic prescriptions to any pharmacy in the country.  On the other hand, it is reasonable to expect that a multimillion dollar piece of software will write a report that any hundred dollar database software from the 1990s could write.  That same software should be capable of allowing physicians to search their own patient results for quality and report writing purposes.  In the end we are left with very expensive, high maintenance systems, and massive amounts of information that is either buried in storage because it is not easily accessible or because it is worthless and generated primarily for justifying a billing document.

That is one of the many real costs of having a health care system run by bureaucrats and politicians.  

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


Photo at the top of this blog is by Paco Burrola on Flickr and is used courtesy of this Creative Commons license.


  1. When I was at the VA using their EHR, the "progress notes" I read from other psychiatrists often had NO narrative reports indicating, for example, why a medication had suddenly been changed, or what symptoms had or had not improved or worsened since the previous visit, or why medications not indicated for the diagnosis on the chart were prescribed.

  2. Efficacy of the EHR? Depends of your point of view. For physicians seeking integration and use of use, it's terrible. But that it wasn't the purpose. The purpose was to pay off campaign bundlers like Judy Faulkner and General Electric for their help in the election and as a data mining project. In that respect, it has been wildly successful.

    They are not interested in your thinking process at all. But they do want you to fill out the gravida and para status of your male patients.

  3. "But they do want you to fill out the gravida and para status of your male patients."

    Haha! Marginally related - my brother-in-law always checks the box that he's pregnant and in all the visits he has had (transplant patient) he's only been called on it once.

  4. News item breaking right on cue: