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Kudos for Electronic Medication Ordering But Problems with Electronic Physician Documentation

Posted Nov 01 2011 12:00am
I toured a major medical center recently to get a look at the robots in the pharmacy and to understand how the electronic medical record worked there. I was particularly interested in the new robot that made up “injectables,” the fluid bags filled with medications to be given intravenously, such as antibiotics. There was also a robot that selects pills and tablets based on bar code technology. A third robot actually delivers the medication to the individual nursing units, a little “R2D2.” The robots depend on the electronic medical record (in this case purchased from a major vendor oriented toward large hospitals and academic medical centers) for input. It begins with the physician placing an order that includes the drug name, dose, route and frequency of administration. The pharmacist reviews the order and then sends it to the appropriate robot for production. It is a terrific system that reduces errors, coaches the physician during the ordering process, and allows the pharmacist to spend more time using his or her knowledge rather than in preparation activities.

I then asked to see a physician using the electronic medical record to enter an order. The doctor showed me how it was done and how it helped her to avoid mistakes. Basically she was very complimentary of the new system.

So I then asked if she also found it effective for writing her medical documentation such as history and progress notes. Medical documentation is the essential communication tool providers use to collaborate on patient treatment. “No way,” was the immediate response. “It [Electronic Physician Documentation] is too cumbersome, takes much too much time, does not allow me to enter information in a logical manner – basically it wants me to use [the computer’s] logic, not mine. So I just hand-write my notes.” Not a good recommendation, so I asked a few more physicians at different locations and got the same response. I checked with the hospital CIO and learned that few physicians actually used the “physician documentation” part of the system although they gave high marks to the other elements such as ordering tests and reviewing results and images. Since then I have asked similar questions at multiple hospitals, using different major vendor systems, always with about the same response. Clearly, there is a problem here.

The long standing written methodology for physician documentation works sort of like this: the doctor writes an “Admission Note” which includes the patient’s history of the present illness, social and medical history, examination findings, diagnostic test findings, a presumed diagnosis, further testing to be done and a treatment plan. Concurrently, the doctor writes “Orders” such as bed rest, frequency of vital signs to be collected, type of diet and drug orders. Thereafter, the doctor enters “Progress Notes” on a daily or greater basis that summarizes the patient’s status since the last physician visit, new information, supplemental orders for additional testing and new treatment approaches. With an electronic medical record many commercial systems try to adjust this process to use “Check offs” and to eliminate or markedly reduce typing which cannot be readily manipulated for later analysis. Some details are readily done by “check offs” such as age, race, gender and even much of the examination. But the “history,” especially that of a person with one or more chronic illnesses, is by nature a narrative not readily amenable to check offs. A second issue is that the physician deals with the patient and therefore with the chart in a discontinuous manner. For example, he or she might visit each patient early in the morning, then go to radiology to review the films with the radiologist, then to pathology to look at slides with the pathologist, etc. Meanwhile the nurse calls with a problem to be resolved with a verbal order or an electronic order urgently. Each of these encounters may need an update to the medical record and so it needs to be adaptable to that requirement. In teaching hospitals, the intern and residents need a simple manner to sign out to each other with a list of problems for each patient – absent that it means taking notes at a sign out conference. Each of these are issues that most of the current commercial vendors have not resolved which is why the doctor I queried responded “No way.” This problem needs to be resolved promptly if electronic medical records are to gain their full potential.

There is hope, however, with innovative niche companies and new technologies to solve these problems where the vendor market has traditionally been unable to do so. Companies such as Salar, Inc., which have carefully observed how physicians work, have found ways to extend hospital EMR’s to deliver a more flexible templating solution. [Disclosure: I was a Salar board member for five years.] Furthermore, advances in voice recognition and natural language processing give promise of allowing physicians to continue to document in their own methods (allowing for narrative and flexible workflow) while coding the information and delivering the information to the EMR.

I believe that once good systems are in place for physician documentation, the electronic medical record will be rapidly adapted with the attendant advantages for patient, doctor, hospital and insurer. This will be especially important as we increasingly need to care for patients with multiple chronic illnesses with the multi-disciplinary team-based approach. The question at hand is why have the major vendors not corrected/improved their systems to make physician documentation easy and thorough for the doc? I suspect that it is because they have large bureaucracies with software written by those who have not actually observed how physicians work. Hopefully this will change.

My new book “ The Future of Health-Care Delivery: Why It Must Change and How It Will Affect You, ” from which this post is adapted, will be published Feb 28, 2012 by Potomac Books
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