Rethinking EHRs: Why Aren’t They Useful Yet? (Part 1)

Guest post by Matthew Douglass, co-founder and SVP of Customer Experience, Practice Fusion.

Matthew Douglass
Matthew Douglass

Despite enjoying broad technological advances in their medical practices over the past decade, many physicians still find little pleasure in having to use electronic health records (EHRs). Reasons for low satisfaction run the gamut, from a litany of potentially distracting alerts to overwhelming features that are difficult to learn. This flagging usability, combined with the growing burden of data entry and documentation, impedes physician satisfaction.

Physicians do not begin their careers in medicine so they can spend a majority of their time wrestling with technology. A recent study found that physicians spend three times as many hours working on computers as they do providing direct patient care. It is no wonder that physicians are reporting record levels of burnout and deep job dissatisfaction.

There are practical workarounds to the challenges of using EHRs, such as programs pairing physicians with scribes that are pre-med students who assist those physicians or plugging in additional technologies that reduce direct documentation overhead. However, these practical workarounds mask the root problem rather than address it; EHRs have yet to provide consistently actionable insights that will help to dramatically improve clinical outcomes.

When a physician opens a patient record in her EHR today, she is probably no better equipped than if she were to open that patient’s paper record 10 years ago. All the data points she might ever need are available for her to sift through, but where is the insight? How is she supposed to interpret clinical meaning in individual pieces of data scattered throughout her patient’s history? How is the EHR assisting her in making better, more informed care and treatment decisions for her patients’ lives that she has been entrusted with improving?

EHRs were originally created as a digital recreation of the physical paper chart that accompanied a physician into the exam room during every patient visit. Vital sign collection sheets were recreated as vital sign fields on the screen. SOAP notes that physicians judiciously completed with pen and paper after every patient visit became digital SOAP note fields in the EHR that still have to be typed by the physician or a physician’s representative at the end of every patient visit. Billing one-pagers with pre-printed ICD and procedure codes have been replaced with nearly identical digital superbills containing point-and-click picklists of diagnoses and procedures.

Although we have created a digital system, the healthcare industry lingers in an analog world: Everything still operates like paper.

In the early 20th century, Henry Ford envisioned a future where transportation was dramatically better than what the main transportation technology of the time (i.e., horses) could provide. Confronted with this problem, he didn’t try to re-engineer horses to run 10 times faster. Thankfully, he set his sights on an entirely different and improved solution, experimented with a few ideas, and succeeded in completely altering the future of human transportation by introducing the first mass-produced automobile.

EHR vendors have a similar opportunity today, as they imagine the future of digital health technology that will be highly usable and incredibly helpful for physicians. Fortunately, EHRs are now broadly distributed enough that there is a solid foundation in place on which to build . Now that the vast majority of patient clinical information lives in a digitized form, we can look to the future and ask a novel, crucial question: How can this rich repository of clinical data evolve into upgraded tools that can be used to broadly improve patient health and physician satisfaction?

To best answer these questions, EHR vendors need to reevaluate the specific assistance that physicians can garner from digital health tools. First, clinicians and their staff must be intimately involved in the functionality discovery process in partnership with EHR vendors. This research can then be converted into success metrics and key questions that clinicians and vendors’ product teams utilize as benchmarks for measuring overall successful implementation.

Further, as physicians are evaluating which digital health technology vendors to partner with in their practice, there are a few advantageous traits they should consider. EHR vendors that operate in a secure cloud offer distinct advantages because they can roll out frequent updates that do not interfere with a practice’s day-to-day operations. If a bug or usability issue does arise, the problem most often can be addressed quickly and without interruption.

Most importantly, EHR vendors that listen to their customers and involve them in the software development process are significantly more likely to offer a product that delivers great value for the entire practice. This is why my company, Practice Fusion, continuously gathers customer feedback and commits to a closer, collaborative working relationship with physician practices – from feature ideation to deployment and maintenance.

The digitization of paper records was an absolute imperative for medical practices to modernize and operate in the 21st century. Physicians have fulfilled their part of the bargain by rapidly adopting EHRs in their practices. Now it’s time for digital health vendors to take the next essential step by augmenting and presenting  the rich clinical data contained in EHRs in more learnable, actionable ways.

For EHRs to truly be thought of as “useful” to physicians and their staff, they must go beyond a simple digital recreation of the paper chart and deliver a dramatically improved experience through actionable insight.

In Part II of this series on EHR usability, we will explore several specific ways that digital health technology in the modern practice can – and will – help to improve the future of medicine.

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