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Burnout is Overused and Under Defined

Posted on December 8, 2017 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn’t rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

Recently, John hosted a #HITsm chat on using technology to fight physician burnout (Read the full transcript from the chat here). The topic’s certainly timely, and it got me to wondering just what is physician burnout. Now, the simple answer is fatigue. However, when I started to look around for studies and insights, I realized that burnout is neither easily defined nor understood.

The Mayo Clinic, among others, defines it this way:

Job burnout is a special type of job stress — a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work. 

So, it is fatigue plus self doubt. Well, that’s for starters. Burnout has its own literature niche and psychologists have taken several different cracks at a more definitive definition without any consensus other than it’s a form of depression, which doesn’t have to be work related.

Unsurprisingly, burnout is not in the DSM-5. It’s this lack of a clinical definition, which makes it easy to use burnout like catsup to cover a host of issues. I think this is exactly why we have so many references to physician or EHR burnout. You can use burnout to cover whatever you want.

It’s easy to find articles citing EHRs and burnout. For example, a year ago April, The Hospitalist headlined, “Research Shows Link Between EHR and Physician Burnout.” The article then flatly says, “The EHR has been identified as a major contributor to physician burnout.” However, it never cites a study to back this up.

If you track back through its references, you’ll wind up at a 2013 AMA study, “Factors Affecting Physician Professional Satisfaction and Their Implications for Patient Care, Health Systems, and Health Policy.” Developed by the Rand Corporation, it’s an extensive study of physician job satisfaction. Unfortunately, for those who cite it for EHR and burnout, it never links the two. In fact, the article never discusses the two together.

Not surprisingly, burnout has found its way into marketing. For example, DataMatrix says:

Physician burnout can be described as a public health crisis especially with the substantial increase over the last couple of years. The consequences are significant and affect the healthcare system by affecting the quality of care, health care costs and patient safety.

Their solution, of course, is to buy their transcription services.

What’s happened here is that physician work life dissatisfaction has been smushed together with burnout, which does a disservice to both. For example, Medscape recently published a study on burnout, which asked physicians about their experience. Interestingly, the choices it gave, such as low income, too many difficult patients – difficult being undefined — are all over the place.

That’s not to say that all physician burnout studies are useless. A recent study, Electronic Health Record Effects on Work-Life Balance and Burnout Within the I3 Population Collaborative, used a simple, five item scale to ask physicians how they viewed their work life. See Figure 1.

Figure 1 Single-Item Burnout Scale.

Their findings were far more nuanced than many others. EHRs played a role, but so did long hours. They found:

EHR proficiency training has been associated with improved job satisfaction and work-life balance.14 While increasing EHR proficiency may help, there are many potential reasons for physicians to spend after-hours on the EHR, including time management issues, inadequate clinic staffing, patient complexity, lack of scribes, challenges in mastering automatic dictation systems, cosigning resident notes, messaging, and preparing records for the next day. All of these issues and their impact on burnout and work-life balance are potential areas for future research.

There’s a need to back off the burnout rhetoric. Burnout’s overused and under defined. It’s a label for what may be any number of underlying issues. Subsuming these into one general, glitzy term, which lacks clinical definition trivializes serious problems. The next time you see something defined as physician or EHR burnout, you might just ask yourself, what is that again?

Patient Data Sharing and EMR Usability

Posted on December 7, 2017 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

It’s been a while since we’ve done a Twitter roundup, so it was time to do one again. This time we highlight 3 recent tweets that will make you go hmmmmm. Lots of great insights from amazing people.


More and more people are open to sharing their records. However, there’s still a lot of education needed for people that are afraid that sharing their records could harm them. While there is that risk, it’s important to remember that not sharing your records could harm you too.


Is this the right balance or resonsibility? Should vendors, leaders, and clinicians all be responsible? Is the reason EMRs aren’t usable is that it takes all 3 of these groups working together to make it usable?


I’ll just leave this one here without comment. Lots to chew on in this image!

Telehealth and Its Contribution to Healthcare

Posted on December 6, 2017 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Juan Pablo Segura, Co-founder & President of Babyscripts.

In 2016, Americans spent roughly 18% of GDP on healthcare. Abetted by an aging population and continuously rising costs of care, CMS projects that this number will only grow over the next decade, increasing at an average of 5.6% annually. A crisis seems unavoidable: yet a huge fraction of this sum is lost to inefficient spending, which, when compared to other factors like an aging population, socio-economic challenges, or expensive new treatments, seems completely within the industry’s control to control and eliminate. A new OECD report calculates that approximately 20 cents out of every dollar spent on healthcare are considered unnecessary.

Could a simple reallocation of time and resources be enough to check the seemingly inevitable? The potential cost-savings of such a reallocation has policymakers and health professionals poised to revolutionize healthcare, as an industry that has long been resistant to innovation rejects antiquated models of care for more efficient methods that prioritize patient and provider alike.

A simple resolution that is already allowing more patients to receive necessary and important primary care is the extension of care teams through mid-level providers that cost a fraction of the salary of a full time physician. Physician’s Assistants and nurse practitioners are being granted more autonomy, as State governments remove restrictions while enacting legislation that grants PAs and other personnel full prescriptive authority. Allowing these lower cost health professionals to perform routine, primary care instead of more expensive, specialized physicians, immediately eliminates inefficiencies in the system and increases access to care to patients in the midst of a physician shortage.

These changes in personnel are necessary, but not enough to respond to the changing face of care. The answer to more affordable care is in leveraging existing technologies.

The rapid adoption of synchronous, video visits between patients and providers across the country is an exciting example of how technology can eliminate waste and help the system reallocate its resources. Recognizing its potential to decrease the administrative demands on providers and facilitate access to patients in remote areas, the industry has placed great emphasis on this aspect of telemedicine, even to the extent of providing incentives to providers for facilitating care through video.

But far from being the solution, video visits just scratch the surface of technology’s potential contributions to affordable healthcare, and in fact are the least beneficial of the efficiencies that technology is poised to provide. Some studies have indicated that when video visits are included in a medical plan, patients tend to treat them as an add-on, rather than a replacement for traditional in-person care. Furthermore, without integrated systems, video visits function much as if a patient were receiving all medical care at the ER, producing a fractured and incomplete medical record.

The dialogue must be centered on those innovations that revolutionize the way we approach healthcare, not simply attempt to translate an outdated system into a world that has evolved past it.

The conversation needs to focus on the most relevant, effective and impactful technology tools to affect the ultimate cost of care. Already, forward thinking providers like Greenville Health are creating end to end “virtual strategies” that rely heavily on remote monitoring apps and asynchronous visits that have the capacity to identify the problems before they begin. Beyond the immediate benefit of proper allocation of time and resources, the ultimate goal of technological innovation in healthcare has always been the opportunity to identify potential problems and create the necessary infrastructure to allow our healthcare system to focus on preventative health.

Of the healthcare apps currently in the digital marketplace, some have been shown not only to decrease costs but to be as successful as medication in preventing complications, anticipating a future of decreased prescription costs. Remote monitoring programs that use IOT devices like blood pressure cuffs and weight scales have reduced the cost of prenatal care by 40% while detecting problems like preeclampsia and other high-risk illnesses. Yet there is very little coding or direct payer incentive for deploying preventative technologies like that provided for video visits.

And why not? Video visits are a move in the right direction, but the decrease to cost of care does not have to come at the expense of the client/physician relationship or integrated care. Instead, effective technology should cut costs while assuring patient and provider of the continuity and efficacy of care.

The conversation amongst policymakers needs to expand to include these more revolutionary aspects of digital health, rewarding those who are effectively reducing costs without compromising care. Digital health will not be confined to a narrow vision, but it is up to the government and the industry to expedite the future of healthcare.

About Juan Pablo Segura
Juan Pablo Segura is Co-founder & President of Babyscripts, a Washington, DC-based technology company that builds mobile and digital tools to empower women to have better pregnancies. Juan Pablo was named a Wireless Life Saver by CTIA and a health care Transformer by the Startup Health Academy in New York City.

EHR-Based Order Prioritization Could Streamline MRI Use

Posted on December 5, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

New research suggests that the overuse of STAT requests for MRIs could be trimmed down considerably if criteria for using such requests were integrated into healthcare organizations’ EHRs. The study also suggests, indirectly at least, that adding timing requests for various procedures into EHRs could help with overall workflow in many facilities.

Researchers from Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, who presented their findings at the RSNA 2017 show last month, found that the volume of STAT brain MRIs had increased to the point where 60% of all MRI orders were ordered as STAT between 2012 and 2015.

The increasing use of the STAT designation has ended up creating a bottleneck, researchers concluded. They found that the volume of STAT requests for brain MRIs was so high that it actually led to delays in turnarounds for those studies. In fact, they found that the mean turnaround time for STAT brain MRIs was roughly 50% longer than routine brain MRIs (23.43 hours versus 15.46 hours).

Among the sources of this problem, it seems, is that few clinicians were aware of the hospital’s policy for STAT MRIs. In an online survey of 97 providers, only 4% were aware that a STAT imaging study should be initiated within 30 minutes of the order. Instead, many expected that a stat MRI would be completed within the same day for inpatients within 2 to 3 days for outpatients, according to a story appearing in Radiology Business.

To address this problem, the researchers are proposing that hospitals add order prioritization criteria to their EHR.  These criteria will include definitions and clinical examples to help clinicians sort out which category to use when ordering a brain MRI.

This approach would also help clinicians better understand how the institution defines normal versus STAT priority for imaging orders. The researchers are recommending that hospitals include EMR documentation defining both STAT and routine categories, as well as a statement of when they can expect imaging to be completed under each category.

Adding categories and definitions of when imaging orders should be categorized as STAT would actually appeal to clinicians, the study suggests. Researchers found that more than 70% of clinicians said they would find clinical examples of an order prioritization scheme useful. What’s more, 84% of clinicians responding to the study said they would order routine MRIs if they were assured the studies would be completed within 24 hours.

The authors admitted that integrating order prioritization schemes for imaging could be time-consuming for IT departments, which suggests that finding other ways to set these priorities over the short term is probably a good idea. But given how supportive clinicians seem to be the idea of improving order turnaround, it seems likely that the EHR integration work should get done before too long.

Are Improved EMR UI Designs On The Way? I Doubt It

Posted on December 4, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

More or less since EMRs were first deployed, providers have been complaining about the poor quality of the interface they’ve had to use.  Quite reasonably, clinicians complained that these interfaces weren’t intuitive, required countless extra keystrokes and forced their work processes into new and uncomfortable patterns.

Despite many years of back and forth, EMR vendors don’t seem to be doing much better. But if a new story appearing in Modern Healthcare is to be believed, vendors are at least trying harder. (Better late than never, I suppose.)

For example, the story notes, designers at Allscripts create a storyboard to test new user interface designs on providers before they actually develop the coded UI. They use the storyboard to figure out where features should sit on a given screen.

According to the magazine, designers at several other EMR vendors have begun going through similar processes. “They are consulting with and observing users inside and outside of their natural work environments to build EHRs for efficient – and pleasant – workflows, layouts and functionality,” the magazine reports.

Reporter Rachel Arndt says that major EHR vendors now rely on a mix of approaches such as formal user testing and collection of informal feedback from end-users to meet their products more usable for clinicians. In some cases, this has evolved into official UI design partnerships between EHR vendors and customers, the story says.

Okay. I get it. We’re supposed to believe that vendors have finally gotten their heads together and are working to make end-users of their products happier and more productive. But given the negative feedback I still get from clinicians, I find myself feeling rather skeptical that the EHR vendors have suddenly gotten religion where UI design is concerned.

For what it’s worth, I have no doubt that Ms. Arndt reported accurately what the vendors were telling her. If any of us would ask vendors they are partnering with customers – especially end-users – to make their products more intuitive to work with, they will swear on a stack of user manuals that they’re improving usability every day.

Until I hear otherwise, though, I’m not going to assume that conditions have changed much out there where EHR usability is concerned. Today, all the feedback I get suggests that EHRs are still being designed to meet the needs of senior management within provider organizations, not the doctors and nurses that have to use them every day.

Of course, I hope I’m wrong, and that the story is accurate in ways that offer some hope to clinicians. But for now, color me very doubtful that EMR vendors are making any earth-shattering UI improvements at present.

Will 2018 Be The Year Of The Health IT/Non-Health-IT Merger?

Posted on December 1, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Within the last several days, the news broke that Amazon Web Services would probably be doing some sort of far-reaching cloud deal with Cerner. Given that AWS is a nearly $20 billion cloud organization, and Cerner one of the largest health IT players in the game, a lot could happen here.

My guess, not that it’s any leap of imaginative genius, is that if the currently-rumored deal between the two partners works, Amazon will make a serious bid to buy out Cerner as a whole. Given the massive profits potentially at stake in health IT, the idea of such an acquisition seems credible to me, at least if Cerner’s stockholders approve. After all, isn’t Amazon the company that just did a multibillion-dollar buyout of Whole Foods to fuel its growing (but still relatively small-scale) efforts in food retailing?

Not only is this particular deal interesting, I think it may portend some major structural changes in the health IT business as a whole. Specifically, I think we’re reaching a point where there will be a lot of pressure on companies with adequate cash and compatible goals to target HIT organizations, particularly if they need to scale up quickly and don’t have much internal knowledge on the subject.

And there’s no question that as healthcare settles into being a digital business, a range of digital businesses outside of healthcare will see that as an opportunity to step into such an important market. After all, how could they not want to be part of any organization that’s competing effectively in an industry that consumes a double-digit portion of the US GDP?

Over this period, many small internal workgroups outside healthcare will be transformed into scouting units seeking the next big digital healthcare deal. At the same time, these divisions will start forming quiet alliances strategic to their business, not only with giants like Cerner and Epic but also well-positioned startups in hot areas such as, say, blockchain security or supply chain management. (How could an ERP vendor not wonder how a healthcare supply chain management company running over blockchain could enhance their business?)

Then, of course, there are the more obvious moves which will bring a new critical mass of health IT customers, knowledge and talent to companies with a giant market presence already, such as Apple and Samsung.

Such M&A efforts won’t be optional. As Microsoft’s experience has proven in the past, and Amazon has apparently found more recently, you can’t just storm into the enterprise healthcare world and demand your cut, no matter how big a player you are. Getting there will take a well-finessed, mutually-fruitful agreement, if not an acquisition, even for a mega-company like Google/Alphabet.

Now, can I tell you which companies will be executing on such deals next year? I have a few theories, but no specific intelligence to share that you couldn’t pick up on your own by skimming industry headlines. But I do stand by my prediction that by the end of 2018, we’ll have seen a few spectacular deals between HIT vendors and digital companies outside the industry that will have a major influence for years to come.

“Doctor on Board” Experiences for Women Doctors and Over Reliance on Devices in Healthcare

Posted on November 30, 2017 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

My good friend, Wen Dombrowski, MD (better known as @HealthcareWen for those of us on social media), recently shared her experience on a KLM International flight where the announcement came over the loudspeaker, “Is there a doctor on board?”

Her story and experience provide a great message and reminder that we still have a ways to go when it comes to our biases around gender and race. Plus, in true Wen fashion, she also provides a great reminder about over-reliance on technology and the lost art of “laying hands on a patient” medicine.  Not to mention a usability and design lesson as well. So, I knew I had to share it with Healthcare Scene.

Here’s her story and lessons learned (shared with permission):

“IS THERE A DOCTOR ON BOARD? (Someone had fainted)
I get up and ask staff who needs help. They say they already have enough doctors, thanks.

I brief a sigh of relief and am grateful that other doctors offered to help, because it’s challenging to practice medicine on a plane. So I go use the restroom. But…

On my way back to my seat, I notice there is activity happening up the aisle around the scene. From the back of the plane it looks like the volunteers are trying to do a procedure so I’m guessing maybe they are putting in an IV? But it is so dark in the plane with the interior lights off in sleep mode.

So I go up to the scene to quietly shine the light from my phone onto the procedure…
I’m appalled to find 2 guys are fumbling to put on a blood pressure cuff. It is a simple cuff for well-known home BP machine, nothing fancy. I watch them try to figure out over and over and over again how to wrap the BP cuff around the passenger’s arm… inside out…upside down… they can’t figure out the direction and Velcro…can’t get the BP cuff onto the passenger. By the way, the patient was awake, cooperative, with normal habitus, so there were no barriers from that perspective.

After watching the 2 guys repeatedly struggle with this, I offer to help.
The airline flight attendant rebukes me, “Please sit down. Are you a nurse? because we already have 2 doctors”(while we watch these guys scrambling to figure out how to put on a BP cuff).
I tell her, “I’m a Doctor & a doctor certified in 3 Specialties.”

The 2 guys say they’ve got it under control (while still trying to put on the cuff backwards etc), they say they are an Internist and a Nephrologist.
(I think to myself what a sad state of Medicine to have Internal Medicine and Nephrology not know how to check a BP! It would be understandable if they were orthopedics or psychiatrists or ENT, but blood pressure management is the bread and butter of those 2 specialties.)

Meanwhile, while they struggle to get the BP cuff velcro’d around passenger’s arm, I ask if anyone has checked passenger’s pulse — Is it Fast or Slow? Regular or Irregular? Strong or Weak? Clammy or not? This would provide valuable triage info and could be been done in 5 seconds by one of the guys who wasn’t holding the BP cuff. I ask again if they or I could check the passenger’s pulse, but they ignored this (seemed like neither of them knew how or didn’t think it was important). I wanted to jump in to do it myself, but there wasn’t enough physical space.

After more than 10 minutes struggling, the “doctors” finally got the BP cuff around the passenger’s arm.

I’m sharing this story because:

1. I’m shocked at the sad state of Medicine that doesn’t know how to nor value laying hands on patients as part of assessing patients (flashback to the practical skills Housecalls and field medicine has taught me). The guys were waiting for “the machine” to tell them “the numbers.” I’m sad at the lost “art” of medicine – lack of common sense handson skills & not looking at the qualitative data, just waiting for the quantitative device data. A lot of valuable time was lost in caring for this passenger. (And while I love technology, sensor devices, and clinical decision support tools – I wonder/worry what will happen to future physician’s common sense and clinical reasoning skills?)

2. And sad about the lack of team mindset of these 2 guys, who insisted on doing it themselves, the blind leading the blind. Not accepting help from female colleague. Not acknowledging what they don’t know nor allowing for help.

I know they meant well and were just trying to help, but sometimes helping comes in the form of teamwork.

There’s a lot that I don’t know in medicine and I’m happy to delegate/consult that to others. But geesh, at least I know how to check a Pulse and Blood Pressure.

3. Not to mention the persistently gender biased attitudes of flight crews who decline help from female physicians, to the detriment of everyone’s safety. This problem has been documented many times by other Female & Minority Physicians, for example: http://www.idealmedicalcare.org/blog/female-physicians-told-to-sit-down-shut-up-and-get-out-of-the-way-during-emergencies-as-patients-nearly-die/

4. The BP cuff was basic and not at fault per se. But these crisis moments highlights opportunities to design it better, to improve its usability and accessibility for laypeople and those who aren’t familiar with it. Perhaps the BP machine company could print pictures on the cuff itself that show the up/down and in/out directions of how to apply the cuff.”

Thanks Wen Dombrowski, MD for sharing this story and your insights.

Google, Stanford Pilot “Digital Scribe” As Human Alternative

Posted on November 29, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Without a doubt, doctors benefit from the face-to-face contact with patients restored to them by scribe use; also, patients seem to like that they can talk freely without waiting for doctors to catch up with their typing. Unfortunately, though, putting scribes in place to gather EMR information can be pricey.

But what if human scribes could be replaced by digital versions, ones which interpreted the content of office visits using speech recognition and machine learning tools which automatically entered that data into an EHR system? Could this be done effectively, safely and affordably? (Side Note: John proposed something similar happening with what he called the Video EHR back in 2006.)

We don’t know the answer yet, but we may find out soon. Working with Google, a Stanford University doctor is piloting the use of digital scribes at the family medicine clinic where he works. Dr. Steven Lin is conducting a 9-month long study of the concept at the clinic, which will include all nine doctors currently working there.

Patients can choose whether to participate or not. If they do opt in, researchers plan to protect their privacy by removing their protected health information from any data used in the study.

To capture the visit information, doctors will wear a microphone and record the session. Once the session is recorded, team members plan to use machine learning algorithms to detect patterns in the recordings that can be used to complete progress notes automatically.

As one might imagine, the purpose of the pilot is to see what challenges doctors face in using digital scribes. Not surprisingly, Dr. Lin (and doubtless, Google as well), hope to develop a digital scribe tool that can be used widely if the test goes well.

While the information Stanford is sharing on the pilot is intriguing in and of itself, there are a few questions I’d hope to see project leaders answer in the future:

  • Will the use of digital scribes save money over the cost of human scribes? How much?
  • How much human technical involvement will be necessary to make this work? If the answer is “a lot” can this approach scale up to widespread use?
  • How will providers do quality control? After all, even the best voice recognition software isn’t perfect. Unless there’s some form of human content oversight, mis-translated words could end up in patient records indefinitely – and that could lead to major problems.

Don’t get me wrong: I think this is a super idea, and if this approach works it could conceivably change EHR information gathering for the better. I just think it’s important that we consider some of the tradeoffs that we’ll inevitably face if it takes off after the pilot has come and gone.

EHRs and Keyboarding: Is There an Answer?

Posted on November 28, 2017 I Written By

When Carl Bergman isn’t rooting for the Washington Nationals or searching for a Steeler bar, he’s Managing Partner of EHRSelector.com, a free service for matching users and EHRs. For the last dozen years, he’s concentrated on EHR consulting and writing. He spent the 80s and 90s as an itinerant project manger doing his small part for the dot com bubble. Prior to that, Bergman served a ten year stretch in the District of Columbia government as a policy and fiscal analyst.

One of the givens of EHR life is that users, especially physicians, spend excessive time keying into EHRs. The implication is that much keyboarding is due to excessive data demands, poor usability or general app cussedness. There’s no end of studies that support this. For example, a recent study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health in the Annals of Family Medicine found that:

Primary care physicians spend more than one-half of their workday, nearly 6 hours, interacting with the EHR during and after clinic hours. The study broke out times spent on various tasks and found, unsurprisingly, that documentation and chart review took up almost half the time.

Figure 1. Percent Physician’s Time on EHR

This study is unique among those looking at practitioners and EHRs. They note:

Although others have suggested work task categories for primary care,13 ours is the first taxonomy proposed to capture routine clinical work in EHR systems. 

They also make the point that they captured physician EHR use not total time spent with patients. Other studies have reached similar EHR use conclusions. The consensus is there too much time keyboarding and not enough time spent one to one with the patient. So, what can be done? Here, I think, are the choices:

  1. Do Nothing. Assume that this is a new world and tough it out.
  2. Use Scribes. Hire scribes to do the keyboarding for physicians.
  3. Make EHRs Easier. Improve EHRs’ usability.
  4. Make EHRs Smarter. Adapt EHRs to physician’s needs through artificial intelligence (AI) solutions.
  5. Offload to Patients. Use patient apps to input data, rather than physician keyboarding.

Examining the Alternatives

 1. Do Nothing. Making no change in either the systems or practioners’ approach means accepting the current state as the new normal. It doesn’t mean that no changes will occur. Rather, that they will continue at an incremental, perhaps glacial, pace. What this says more broadly is that the focus on the keyboard, per se, is wrong. The question is not what’s going in so much as what is coming out compared to old, manual systems. For example, when PCs first became office standards, the amount of keyboarding vs. pen and paper notations went viral. PCs produced great increases in both the volume and quality of office work. This quickly became the new norm. That hasn’t happened with EHRs. There’s an assumption that the old days were better. Doing nothing acknowledges that you can’t go back. Instead, it takes a stoic approach and assumes things will get better eventually, so just hang in there.

2. Scribes. The idea of using a scribe is simple. As a doctor examines a patient, the scribe enters the details. Scribes allow the physician to offload the keyboarding to someone with medical knowledge who understands their documentation style. There is no question that scribes can decrease physician keyboarding. This approach is gaining in popularity and is marketed by various medical societies and scribe services companies.

However, using scribes brings a host of questions. How are the implemented? I think the most important question is how a scribe fits into a system’s workflow. For example, how does an attending review a scribe’s notes to determine they convey the attending’s clinical findings, etc. The attending is the responsible party and anything that degrades or muddies that oversight is a danger to patient safety. Then, there are questions about patient privacy and just how passive an actor is a scribe?

If you’re looking for dispositive answers, you’ll have to wait. There are many studies showing scribes improve physician productivity, but few about the quality of the product.

3. Make EHRs Easier. Improving EHR usability is the holy grail of health IT and about as hard to find. ONC’s usability failings are well known and ongoing, but it isn’t alone. Vendors know that usability is something they can claim without having to prove. That doesn’t mean that usability and its good friend productivity aren’t important and are grossly overdue. As AHRQ recently found:

In a review of EHR safety and usability, investigators found that the switch from paper records to EHRs led to decreases in medication errors, improved guideline adherence, and (after initial implementation) enhanced safety attitudes and job satisfaction among physicians. However, the investigators found a number of problems as well.

These included usability issues, such as poor information display, complicated screen sequences and navigation, and the mismatch between user workflow in the EHR and clinical workflow. The latter problems resulted in interruptions and distraction, which can contribute to medical error.

Additional safety hazards included data entry errors created by the use of copy-forward, copy-and-paste, and electronic signatures, lack of clarity in sources and date of information presented, alert fatigue, and other usability problems that can contribute to error. Similar findings were reported in a review of nurses’ experiences with EHR use, which highlighted the altered workflow and communication patterns created by the implementation of EHRs.

Improving EHR usability is not a metaphysical undertaking. What’s wrong and what works have been known for years. What’s lacking is both the regulatory and corporate will to do so. If all EHRs had to show their practical usability users would rejoice. Your best bet here may be to become active in your EHR vendor’s user group. You may not get direct relief, but you’ll have a place, albeit small, at the table. Otherwise, given vendor and regulatory resistance to usability improvements, you’re better off pushing for a new EHR or writing your own EHR front end.

4. Make EHRs Smarter. If Watson can outsmart Kent Jennings, can’t artificial Intelligence make EHRs smarter? As one of my old friends used to tell our city council, “The answer is a qualified yes and a qualified no.”

AI takes on many, many forms and EHRs can and do use it. Primarily, these are dictation – transcription assistant systems. They’re known as Natural Language Processing (NLP). Sort of scribes without bodies. NLP takes a text stream, either live or from a recording, parses it and puts it in the EHR in its proper place. These systems combine the freedom of dictation with AI’s ability to create clinical notes. That allows the theory maintains, a user to maintain patient contact while creating the note, thus solving the keyboarding dilemma.

 The best-known NLP system Nuance’s Dragon Medical One, etc. Several EHR vendors have integrated Dragon or similar systems into their offerings. As with most complex, technical systems, though, NLP implementation requires a full-scale tech effort. Potential barriers are implementation or training shortcuts, workflow integration, and staff commitment. NLP’s ability to quickly gather information and place it is a given. What’s not so certain is its cost-effectiveness or its product quality. In those respects, its quality and efficacy is similar to scribes and subject to much the same scrutiny.

One interesting and wholly unexpected NLP system result occurred in a study by the University of Washington Researchers. The study group used an Android app NLP dictation system, VGEENS, that captured notes at the bedside. Here’s what startled the researchers:

….Intern and resident physicians were averse to creating notes using VGEENS. When asked why this is, their answers were that they have not had experience with dictation and are reluctant to learn a new skill during their busy clinical rotations. They also commented that they are very familiar with creating notes using typing, templates, and copy paste.

The researchers forgot that medical dictation skills are just that, a skill and don’t come without training and practice. It’s a skill of older generations and that keyboarding is today’s given. 

5. Offload to Patients. I hadn’t thought of this one until I saw an article in the Harvard Business Review. In a wide-ranging review, the authors saw physicians as victims of medical overconsumption and information overload:

In our recent studies of how patients responded to the introduction of a portal allowing them to e-mail health concerns to their care team, we found that the e-mail system that was expected to substitute for face-to-face visits actually increased them. Once patients began using the portal, many started sharing health updates and personal news with their care teams.

One of their solutions is to offload data collection and monitoring to patient apps:

Mightn’t we delegate some of the screening work to patients themselves? Empowering customers with easy-to-use tools transformed the tax reporting and travel industries. While we don’t expect patients to select what blood-pressure medications to be on, we probably can offload considerable amounts of the monitoring and perhaps even some of the treatment adjustment to them. Diabetes has long been managed this way, using forms of self-care that have advanced as self-monitoring technology has improved.

This may be where we are going; however, it ignores the already crowded app field. Moreover, every app seems to have its own data protocol. Health apps are a good way to capture and incorporate health data. They may be a good way to offload physicians’ keyboarding, but health apps are a tower of protocol Babel right now. This solution is as practical as saying that the way to curb double entering data in EHRs is to just make them interoperable.

What’s an EHR User to Do?

If each current approach to reducing keyboarding has problems, they are not fatal. I think that physician keyboarding is a problem and that it is subject to amelioration, if not solution.

For example, here’s Nordic’s Joel Martin on EHR usability:

… In reality, much of this extra work is a result of expanded documentation and quality measure requirements, security needs, and staffing changes. As the healthcare industry shifts its focus to value-based reimbursement and doing more with less, physician work is increasing. That work often takes place in the EHR, but it isn’t caused by the EHR’s existence.

Blaming the EHR without optimizing its use won’t solve the problem. Instead, we should take a holistic view of the issues causing provider burnout and use the system to create efficiencies, as it’s designed to do.  

The good news is that optimizing the EHR is very doable. There are many things that can be done to make it easier for providers to complete tasks in the EHR, and thereby lower the time spent in the system.

Broadly speaking, these opportunities fall into two categories.

First, many organizations have not implemented all the time-saving features that EHR vendors have created. There are features that dramatically lower the time required to complete EHR tasks for common, simple visits (for instance, upper respiratory infections). We rarely see organizations that have implemented these features at the time of our assessments, and we’re now working with many to implement them.

In addition, individual providers are often not taking advantage of features that could save them time. When we look at provider-level data, we typically see fewer than half of providers using speed and personalization features, such as features that let them rapidly reply to messages. These features could save 20 to 30 minutes a day on their own, but we see fewer than 50 percent of providers using them.

Optimization helps physicians use the EHR the way it was intended – in real-time, alongside patient care, to drive better care, fewer mistakes, and higher engagement. Ultimately, we envision a care environment where the EHR isn’t separate from patient care, but rather another tool to provide it. 

What does that mean for scribes or NLP? Recognize they are not panaceas, but tools. The field is constantly changing. Any effort to address keyboarding should look at a range of independent studies to identify their strengths and pitfalls. Note not only the major findings but also what skills, apps, etc., they required. Then, recognize the level of effort a good implementation always requires. Finally, as UW’s researchers found, surprises are always lurking in major shake-ups.

Join us for this week’s #HITsm chat on Using Technology to Fight EHR Burnout to discuss this topic more.

In The Hot Seat Again: eClinicalWorks Faces Billion-Dollar Suit Over Alleged Software Problems

Posted on November 27, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Earlier this year, eClinicalWorks agreed to pay $155 million to the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve allegations that it had faked its conformance with Meaningful Use criteria. The DoJ suit alleged that by withholding information needed for certification, eCW violated the False Claims Act.

Now, the vendor is facing what could be an even more serious legal threat, according to a news report appearing in Becker’s Hospital Review. BHR is reporting administrator of the estate of a deceased cancer patient is suing the vendor over data display errors that may have affected the patient’s care.

What makes the stakes so high in this case is that the complaint is asking the court to certify the case as class action, with members to include “all persons residing in the United States whose physicians used eCW to record and store their medical records at all dates relevant.” The suit is asking the court to award plaintiffs $999 million in damages, Becker’s Hospital Review reports.

According to the complaint, which was filed by Kristina Tot, administrator of the estate of the deceased Stjepan Tot, errors with eCW software began to appear before the cancer patient’s death. For example, “he was unable to display his medical history or progress notes,” the complaint reportedly states.

The cancer patient’s problems were far from unique, however, the suit asserts. According to the complaint, important eCW software functions didn’t work or violated regulatory guidelines. The filing claims the vendor didn’t provide accurate and reliable health information, displayed incorrect panels and didn’t record EHR user actions in audit logs.

The bottom line, the suit claims, is that millions of patient records were compromised, leaving patients and physicians unable to rely on the eCW platform.

I am not qualified to speak on whether there’s any merit to the latest suit against eCW, though I think it’s reasonable to assume that the company may not have its act together. (You might also want to check out the angry eCW critiques on this site — whose publisher, like our fearless leader John Lynn, I know to have an impeccable reputation for honesty.)

Ultimately, it’s hard to say whether this latest suit is largely blowback from the previous certification problem or yet another (extremely) costly headache. Either way, if I were part of its leadership team I’d be more than a little shaken by recent events even if the recent complaint gets dismissed.