The electronic medical record and the loss of the patient’s story

May 2, 2016  |  General

This is a post I wrote some years ago for Maggie Mahar’s excellent blog, HealthBeat. With the now nearly universal adoption of the electronic medical record (EMR) I think it matters more than ever.

The EMR is here to stay. Its adoption was initially slow, but over the past decade those hospitals that do not already have it are making plans for implementing it. On the whole this represents progress: the EMR has the ability to greatly improve patient care. Physicians, as well as all other caregivers, no longer have to puzzle over barely legible handwritten notes or flip through pages and pages of a patient’s paper chart to find important information.

With the EMR, it is easy to see what medications a patient is taking, when they were started, and when they were stopped. Physicians can easily find key vital signs – temperature, pulse, respirations, and blood pressure – plotted over any time frame they wish. All the past laboratory data are displayed succinctly. But it is not all gravy.

I use the EMR every day, and I am old enough to have trained and practiced when everything was on paper. While overall, I am happy to have electronic records, there is a problem: The EMR is trying to serve too many masters. The needs of these various masters are different, and sometimes they are incompatible, even hostile to one another.  These masters include other caregivers, the agencies paying for the care, and those interested in medico-legal aspects of care

What can happen, and I have seen it many times, is that the needs of the caregivers take a back seat to the needs of the payers and the lawyers. The EMR is supposed to improve patient care, but sometimes it makes it worse. Physician progress notes illustrate how this happens.

Progress notes are the lifeblood of the medical record. They tell, from day to day, what physicians did to a patient and why. They are a narrative of the patient’s care. Three decades ago we sat down, pulled out a pen, and wrote out our daily progress notes. There were standard ways of doing this, but physicians were free to organize their notes however they liked. That was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because not all patients fit the standard way of note writing, so you could modify how you recorded things; it was a curse because every physician was different, and some wrote very sketchy notes indeed, notes from which it was very difficult to figure out what happened.

I once did a research project for which I was reading physician notes from the nineteen twenties, thirties and forties. I recall one patient in particular who was clearly desperately ill. He had critically abnormal vital signs (which I could tell from the nurses’ graphic chart), needed several blood transfusions, and even stopped breathing once. His progress note for the day, written by a very famous and distinguished physician, was one line: “Mustard plaster didn’t work.”

Physician notes have evolved a great deal since 1930. Certainly in my medical career, which began in 1974, physicians were expected to make some reference to what they were thinking, why they did or did not do what they did. Sometimes the notes were cryptic jottings that made it very hard to follow what was happening. But most of the time you could understand what your colleagues were thinking.

But while this worked reasonably well for physicians, other users of the medical record complained loudly. Payers, such as insurance companies and Medicare, based their reimbursement upon those notes. They were unwilling to pay for anything that was not clearly documented. They also increasingly based their payment structure on the complexity of the medical decision making; if physicians wanted to be paid at a higher rate for managing a complex and difficult patient they needed to show in their note just why that patient was complicated. They needed to show what they were thinking, and what information, such as laboratory data and the physical examination, they used to make their decisions.

Finally, for the lawyers, the operative phrase was “if it’s not documented, it didn’t happen.” In theory, the goals of all three users – caregivers, payers, and lawyers – should be in alignment. But with the EMR the needs of the caregivers, which should be paramount, are losing groun

The EMR, since it is on a computer, can be manipulated in all the ways a computer allows. Hospitals are laying out millions to implement the EMR, and to ensure maximum payment they want to make sure it is easy for the payers to find in the EMR all the things the payers want there. This is accomplished, among other things, through the use of templates and “smart text” for progress notes. For example, a physician writing a progress note in Epic, a popular EMR system, can open a template that has many components of the evaluation already filled in. The program can bring into the note all the previous laboratory values. It has all the categories of the physical examination sitting on the screen for the physician to fill in.

It is easy to “drag and drop” information from previous notes with simple keystrokes. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with all this. It can make producing a complete progress note quick and easy. But it also can destroy the original purpose of the progress note – to give a narrative of the patient’s progress. It can stifle the conversation between physicians embodied in traditional progress notes

Recently I saw an example of the problems this can cause. A couple of weeks ago I heard I was getting a patient into the pediatric intensive care unit with multiple problems, most acutely a blood problem. One of these lesser issues was a heart problem that required surgery. Because of the other serious problems, though, the surgery had been postponed for the future. I read about all this in the patient’s EMR before she even arrived in the PICU, which is one of the great aspects of the EMR. We no longer have to wait for a clerk pushing a cart around the hospital to deliver the paper chart. The patient had been seen just that morning by her hematologist for the blood issue and the progress note in the EMR told me the plan for her heart problem was surgery sometime in the future when the child’s other problems had improved. It said so right there on the screen. In fact, all the notes had been saying that for over a year.

So imagine my surprise when I went in to see the child and saw an obvious and well-healed surgical scar on her chest, clearly from heart surgery. She had had her heart fixed two months before at another institution. I gave her hematologist the benefit of the doubt and assumed her doctor knew the surgery had been done, and that what had happened (I hope) was that the doctor had used the beguiling convenience of drag and drop on the progress note template to do the note. This particular incident was innocuous, but I think you can see the potential for mischief with this sort of thing.

This is not an isolated event. I have seen many examples– so many that I now cast a suspicious eye on all those uniformly formatted progress notes. The ease with which mounds and mounds of verbiage and laboratory data can be stuffed into a progress note may give the payers what they want, but it often does not give me what I want– and that is some evidence that all this information was processed through a physician’s brain and led to a carefully considered decision about what to do. I want a human voice, and that is getting harder and harder to find in the EMR’s stereotypic and bloodless documentation.

Medicine is about stories – patients’ stories. I was taught forty years ago that most of the time the history gives us the diagnosis. Osler reputedly said: “Listen to the patient. He is telling you the diagnosis.” (That attribution has been questioned, but the spirit is definitely Osler’s.)

Of course these days our wonderful scientific tools often give us the answer, and I certainly do not wish to toss all those things aside to go back to using only what Osler had. But medicine is not really a science. It is based on science, uses science, and is increasingly more scientific. But medicine also contains large measures of intuition, educated guessing, and blind luck. I do not think that aspect of medicine will ever completely disappear. When I read (or wade) through a patient’s record, I look for the story. When I cannot find a coherent story, I cannot give the best care.

For myself, even though I of course use the EMR, I refuse to use all those handy smart text templates. It takes me longer, but I type out my progress notes, organized as I did when I used a pen and chart paper. It takes me a little longer, but it makes me think things through. No billing coder has ever complained. More than a few colleagues have told me, that when we share patients, that they search through the EMR to find one of my notes to understand what is happening with the patient.

My advice to other doctors is this: don’t let the templates get in your way. Tell the story.

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