Rethinking EHRs: Actionable Insight Increases Usability (Part 2)

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

Matthew Douglass
Matthew Douglass

In part 1 of this series, we reviewed the history of digital health tools and discussed why they are not yet fully satisfying the needs of many physicians.

If you think of the U.S. healthcare system as a vast nationwide transportation network, current electronic health record (EHR) functionality is the basic highway infrastructure. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided the incentives for those highways to be built and put in place the structure for ONC-certified EHRs to define the rules of the road via regulatory standards. The roads are now mostly in place: certified EHRs all offer roughly the same base functionality for use by physicians, store clinical information in standardized ways, and have the capabilities to securely communicate with each other.

Sixty-seven percent of medical practices in the U.S. are now using EHRs to run all or part of their daily operations. Patients’ vital signs are stored as discrete values for each visit. Encrypted messages between physicians and their staff are transmitted reliably. Chart notes are being digitally documented and can be shared confidentially with patients. Physicians that have chosen cloud-based EHRs can securely prescribe and refill medications from the convenience of their mobile phones.

Despite having this digital highway system in place, we haven’t yet reached a destination where use of EHRs achieves better patient outcomes or improved clinical experiences. Physicians want more from digital tools than simply receiving, storing, and displaying data values about each patient visit. Rather than devoting too much of their already limited time to data entry and retrieval, physicians want to provide the best patient care possible, and they expect technology to help them achieve this goal.

There is such a thing as too much data, which physicians are reminded of each time they open a digital chart. Clinicians very often are left swimming in more data than they can adequately process, which can erode the crucial patient-provider human relationship.

To address data overload and dehumanization challenges, software partners must go back to the drawing board and visualize dramatic innovations that can be built on top of the nationwide EHR foundation. Significant cognitive overhead is required to distill hundreds of disparate pieces of clinical data into a salient picture of an individual’s overall health. The vast amount of data now available in a patient’s chart is quite often far more than any medical professional, no matter how clinically experienced, can consistently and reliably assimilate.

Physicians and their staff need intuitive technology to be their always-available, intelligent assistant, from start to finish during a patient’s visit.

When a patient’s record is displayed on the computer screen, physicians shouldn’t have to dig for relevant information about that visit. Instead, the EHR should be able to display the pertinent clinical data and health insights for the physician to review and assess a patient’s health condition more quickly and effectively. For example, lab values and vital signs relevant to that patient’s chief complaint are likely already stored as discrete values in the patient’s chart. An EHR that learns along with the physician’s workflow preferences should display only the most relevant data through easily digestible visualizations.

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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.

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