OrthoBuzz occasionally receives posts from guest bloggers. In response to a recent New Yorker article by Atul Gawande, the following two commentaries come from Matthew Christian, MD, and Paul Matuszewski, MD, respectively.
In his November 12, 2018 article in The New Yorker, Dr. Atul Gawande notes that more than 90% of American hospitals have been computerized in the past decade. In theory, that should make documentation easier, but Gawande cites a 2016 study revealing that most physicians now spend 2 hours documenting for every 1 hour of face-to-face patient interaction. That hit home to me when I joined a group practice that uses an electronic medical record (EMR) system for clinical documentation. One of my senior partners informed me that he spends 2 hours per day at home finishing clinic notes and dictations.
The downside of digitization seems clear. Dr. Gawande cites a study noting that primary care physicians screen positive for depression at a rate double that of the general population. A Mayo clinic study discovered that the amount of computer documentation was a strong predictor of physician burnout.
Gawande further describes medicine as a “complex adaptive system” that is “meant to evolve with time and changing conditions.” EMRs, conversely, seek to universalize and mandate best practices—often to a fault—with little or no flexibility. In Gawande’s adaptive model, computerization is “all selection and no mutation.”
What makes medicine so engaging and satisfying for me is treating each patient in a unique and personalized manner. It seems that the last bastion of the happy physician is the proceduralist, of which the orthopaedic surgeon is an example. We spend 2 or 3 fewer days a week documenting clinical visits and instead solve unique and intellectually challenging musculoskeletal problems. This break from a computer screen frees us to do the thing we have spent our whole adult lives training for—practicing medicine. That is, until the procedure is complete and we must log in to complete the operative notes, postop orders, attending attestation, and other seemingly endless tasks.
Matthew Christian, MD is an orthopaedic surgeon at OSS Health in York, Pennsylvania and a member of the JBJS Social Media Advisory Board.
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The electronic medical record—a marvelous marriage of modern technology and medicine to improve care for patients. At least, that was the promise. How it has played out over the past decade, however, leaves much to be desired from the perspective of physicians. Patient care has not been streamlined, and mounting evidence suggests that EMRs have increased the workload for physicians, adversely altered the physician-patient relationship, and increased the degree of physician burnout.1 Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article outlines his and other physician experiences with EMRs, concluding that many physicians—especially nonsurgeons bound to an office or clinic—now hate their computers.
But why? Gawande describes the evolution of EMRs from simple “cool” programs into complex, “very uncool” systems, eventually culminating in what former IBM software engineer Frederick Brooks described as the “Tar Pit.” That’s when a system becomes so complex and universalized for so many different people and functions (clinical and administrative in the case of EMRs) that it becomes the electronic equivalent of miles of bureaucratic red tape. For physicians, the “Tar Pit” means more clicks, more steps, more checks, more alerts and notifications—with little or no improvement for patients and less work/life balance for doctors.
Gawande relates the experience of a primary-care physician who once effectively maintained her own problem list for each of her patients. But the list has become in her words “utterly useless,” because now anyone across the organization can modify it, often inserting duplication and inaccuracies. Computerized complexity that adds more work but little to no value discourages physicians from engaging with the system, compounding the problem.
Gawande’s article doesn’t go into detail about how we can solve this problem, but it presents several ways that physicians and hospital systems have coped. Some have resorted to medical scribes (often aspiring med students) or more highly trained overseas physicians who transcribe physician encounters. Some tech-savvy physicians expend effort to bend the software to their will – customizing components of the EMR despite pushback from vendors. This has led to various home-grown apps designed to help improve workflow and reduce hassles.
Time will tell whether these or other workarounds will actually help. One thing is certain, however. Unless physicians take charge and guide the design (and redesign) of EMR technology, the system will fail to serve the physician, and the current reality of the physician serving the system will persist.
Paul E. Matuszewski, MD is an assistant professor of orthopaedic traumatology and Director of Orthopaedic Trauma Research at the University of Kentucky School of Medicine and a member of the JBJS Social Media Advisory Board.
- Arndt et al. Tethered to the EHR: Primary Care Physician Workload Assessment Using EHR Event Log Data and Time-Motion Observations. Ann Fam Med. 2017 (15) 5, 419-426
Editor’s Note: The US Department of Health and Human Services has unveiled a draft plan to ease the burden of using EMR software. The draft strategy is open for public comments through January 28, 2019. Also, see this related OrthoBuzz Editor’s Choice post from JBJS Editor-in-Chief Dr. Marc Swiontkowski.
The intended goals of requiring electronic medical record (EMR) systems in all hospitals and clinics were rational and, for the most part, patient-centered. EMRs have prevented large numbers of potentially serious medication errors, served as a secure means of making laboratory and imaging data readily available to surgeons, and have provided an efficient mode of communication among members of health care teams.
Unfortunately, the design of most, if not all, EMR systems is focused on coding and billing, not on the doctor-patient interaction during the all-important face-to-face clinic visit. This has had the unintended consequence of requiring dense, protracted documentation of care interactions that seems to de-emphasize the most important part of the EMR entry: the physician’s thought process and treatment plan.
In the September 19, 2018 edition of The Journal, Scott et al. provide us with a unique cost-and-productivity view into the impact that implementing an EMR had within an outpatient orthopaedic clinic. During the first 6 months after a new EMR was launched, total labor costs increased, driven by attending surgeons and medical assistants spending increased time documenting visits. Although the total per-encounter cost returned to baseline levels after 6 months, more time was spent documenting encounters and less time was spent interacting with patients than before EMR implementation. So, even after a return to normal clinic “productivity” after the 6-month learning period, the price paid for increased time spent documenting on the new EMR was decreased provider-patient “face time.”
In my opinion, it is essential that we work to remedy this deficiency. Personally, I do not use EMR-provided templates for documenting physical exam findings, imaging study results, and treatment plans. Instead, I engage with the patient during the visit and make detailed notes in the EMR after the patient leaves. This probably results in “under-billing” for my services, but I am willing to pay that price to increase the value of the visit for the patient—and for my colleagues who may review my notes.
The study by Scott et al. is a necessary first step in understanding EMR ramifications in orthopaedics, but our community needs more broad-based research to further delve into the full impact of EMRs on patient care, patient satisfaction, and cost. Toward that end, the Orthopaedic Research and Education Foundation (OREF) recently extended until September 28, 2018 the deadline for grant proposals to investigate the impact of EMR regulations on the patient-physician relationship. We must continue to address this apparent problem to improve patient care, which was the goal of EMRs in the first place.
Marc Swiontkowski, MD