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Dumb Question 101: What’s Workflow Doing in an EHR?

Posted on March 29, 2016 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.

This was going to be a five year relook at Practice Fusion. Back then, I’d written a critical review saying I wouldn’t be a PF consultant. Going over PF now, I found it greatly changed. For example, I criticized it not having a shared task list. Now, it does. Starting to trace other functions, a question suddenly hit me. Why did I think an EHR should have a shared task list or any other workflow function for that matter?

It’s a given that an EHR is supposed to record and retrieve a patient’s medical data. Indeed, if you search for the definition of an EHR, you’ll find just that. For example, Wikipedia defines it this way:

An electronic health record (EHR), or electronic medical record (EMR), refers to the systematized collection of patient and population electronically-stored health information in a digital format.[1] These records can be shared across different health care settings. Records are shared through network-connected, enterprise-wide information systems or other information networks and exchanges. EHRs may include a range of data, including demographics, medical history, medication and allergies, immunization status, laboratory test results, radiology images, vital signs, personal statistics like age and weight, and billing information.[2]

Other definitions, such as HIMSS are similar, but add another critical element, workflow:

The EHR automates and streamlines the clinician’s workflow.

Is this a good or even desirable thing? Now, before Chuck Webster shoots out my porch lights, that doesn’t mean I’m anti workflow. However, I do ask what are workflow features doing in an EHR?

In EHRs early days, vendors realized they couldn’t drop one in a practice like a fax machine. EHRs were disruptive and not always in a good way. They often didn’t play well with practice management systems or the hodgepodge of forms, charts and lists they were replacing.

As a result, vendors started doing the workflow archeology and devising new ones as part of their installs. Over time, EHRs vendors started touting how they could reform not just replace an old system.

Hospitals were a little different. Most had IT staff that could shoehorn a new system into their environment. However, as troubled hospital EHR rollouts attest, they rarely anticipated the changes that EHRs would bring about.

Adding workflow functions to an EHR may have caused what my late brother called a “far away” result. That is, the farther away you were from something, the better it looked. With EHR workflow tools, the closer you get to their use, the more problems you may find.

EHRs are designed for end users. Adding workflow tools to these assumes that the users understand workflow dynamics and can use them accordingly. Sometimes this works well, but just as often the functions may not be as versatile as the situation warrants. Just ask the resident who can’t find the option they really need.

I think the answer to EHR workflow functions is this. They can be nice to have, like a car’s backup camera. However, having one doesn’t make you a good driver. Having workflow functions shouldn’t fool you into thinking that’s all workflow requires.

The only way to determine what’s needed is by doing a thorough, requirements analysis, working closely with users and developing the necessary workflow systems.

A better approach would be a workflow system that embeds its features in an EHR. That way, the EHR could fit more seamlessly its environment, rather than the other way around.

#HIMSS16 Exhibitors with Great Workflow Stories

Posted on February 12, 2016 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.

UPDATE: You can see the recorded video of this discussion in the YouTube video embedded below:

HIMSS16 Exhibitors with Great Workflow Stories-blog

Chuck Webster, MD, or as most people know him, @wareflo, is famous for always talking about healthcare workflow. You can talk about EHR and he’ll bring up workflow. You can talk about population health and he’ll discuss the workflow aspects of it. You can talk about buying a cheeseburger at McDonalds and he’ll talk about workflow. You can talk about your tweeting strategy and he’ll talk about workflow. He should really consider changing his name to Mr. Workflow.

One thing I’ve always found interesting is that each year Chuck goes through the list of HIMSS exhibitors (yes, all ~1300 of them…he’s insane like that!) and identifies which ones are using workflow technology to solve the problems of healthcare. With that in mind, I thought a blab with Chuck and other HIMSS16 vendors who include some aspect of workflow in their solutions would be a great intro to #HIMSS16. So, on Wednesday, February 17, 2016 at Noon ET (9 AM PT), I’ll be sitting down with Charles Webster and some #HIMSS16 vendors that are interested in workflow.

You can join my live conversation with Chuck Webster and even add your own comments to the discussion or ask Chuck questions. All you need to do to watch live is visit this blog post on Wednesday, February 17, 2016 at Noon ET (9 AM PT) and watch the video embed at the bottom of the post or you can subscribe to the blab directly. We’re hoping to include as many people in the conversation as possible. The discussion will be recorded as well and available on this post after the interview.

If you’re a healthcare IT vendor that has a solution that helps with healthcare workflows, we’d love to have you join us on the blab (video, chat, or just viewing). If you want to hop on video, you’ll probably want to visit the blab directly. Otherwise, if you just want to watch us chat, the video below will go live on the day of the blab.

If you’d like to see the archives of Healthcare Scene’s past interviews, you can find and subscribe to all of Healthcare Scene’s interviews on YouTube.

PHR Interaction with Doctors, A Shakespearean Tangle, and an iPhone EHR

Posted on December 18, 2015 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.

I regularly like to do a post that highlights interesting tweets from around the EHR and Healthcare IT twittersphere. Plus, I add in a bit of my own commentary. I hope you enjoy.


We’ve all known this for a long time. Glad to see that most doctors are finally realizing it too. With that said, I think we still have a long way to go when it comes to how we interact with patients through a PHR. However, we’re finally getting comfortable with the idea.


You need this part of the link above to understand the tweet:

Is ownership of medical data or workflow a Shakespearean comedy (happy ending) or tragedy (sad ending). At this point in time, the end result is not clear nor can an ending really be predicted. However, recognizing the issues can help draw focus and hopefully influence a better outcome.

It’s a fun question to ask. I think for most people it will be a generally happy ending. We usually end up with the right thing after we’ve exhausted all of our options (to modify a similar famous quote about the US). My only caution is that there may not be an ending to this. It will likely be a battle that will rage forever with give and take that goes on at least for our lifetimes.


I found this tweet ironic since I’d just had some searches to my website looking for an iOS EHR. It might be worth linking to my previous Apple EHR post. DrChrono built its brand on the back of an iPad EHR, so this isn’t a surprise. Of course, the proof is in the pudding as they say. I’ll hold out my judgment until I can hear from the doctors who actually use their iPhone as their EHR. As for the comment in the tweet above, I’m not sure it changes everything. We’ll still hear plenty of complaints from doctors on Epic and Cerner that they can’t do their EHR on their iPhone.

Slickest Solution I Saw at HIMSS15

Posted on April 22, 2015 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.

This probably says something about me, but I’m always intrigued by really slick solutions that leverage creativity to solve a problem. While at HIMSS amidst all the vendor noise, I saw a solution that I fits this description. The solution came from a scanning company called Ambir and the solution is called nForm. Yes, I was a bit surprised that it came from a scanner company too, but that’s the beauty of HIMSS. You never know where you going to find something interesting.

In any office, one of the biggest annoyances during an EHR implementation is that you can’t go fully electronic. There are still a large number of forms that require a patient signature. In 95% of cases this means that you’re handing the patient a stack of paper forms which they can sign. Most organizations then scan those forms into their EHR. It makes for an awful workflow and we all know it.

The nForm solution from Ambir solves this problem and makes the process electronic. You can literally scan in any form and nForm will make that paper form an electronic form that can be completed electronically on an iOS, Android or the nForm 410x tablet device. The patient can literally fill out the form on the screen as if they were filling out the form on paper. Then, once the patient completes the form, nForm will upload it to your EHR using the same workflow you’d been using when you’d scan the form into your EHR.
nForm
To me the most powerful part of this solution is that it uses your paper form workflow without requiring any sort of new integration from your EHR vendor. Even if you usually print out your intake forms from your EHR, you can “print” them to nForm and then when the patient fills out the forms they’ll get pushed back to the EHR. If you’re a clinic that just has a stack of intake paperwork that you attach to a clipboard for the patient, you can have those already queued up on nForm and just hand the tablet to the patients to complete.

While I’ve talked about the intake forms, you can also use this for other forms you might need signed later in the office visit as well. We all know those pesky consent for treatment forms that we’re still doing on paper and hopefully scanning in later.

I love that this is a slick solution for healthcare, but I’m also interested in the product for my own personal use. The only things I print these days are when I need to sign something. How much nicer will it be for me to just print to nForm, sign it and then send it to the receiving party? Saves the hassle of going to the printer. Saves ink and paper which will make all you eco friendly people happy.

While nForm supports you writing anything on a form (it literally is like an electronic piece of paper), I’m skeptical about how well it will do for a really detailed form. Obviously in healthcare we’re moving these forms to a patient portal so we can get the granular data elements stored as unique data elements. So, we’re not handing a patient a lengthy paper form as much anymore.

With that said, I’m not sure how a lengthy health history form would look using nForm. People’s bad handwriting together with the digital input might make it hard to read. For signatures or basic forms it won’t be an issue at all. Plus, they’ve made it so the virtual pen color is different from the background of the form. It’s actually really easy to look at a form and see what was completed (or not completed) by the patient. In that way, it makes the form more legible than a paper form. Although, it still depends on the quality of their handwriting.

All in all, I’m really impressed with the nForm solution. I’ve implemented a Topaz style signature pad solution before, but that required integration with the EHR (which very few have done) and still felt awkward since you weren’t actually signing on the document itself. nForm has all the advantages of the paper form, but in a nice electronic solution. I love slick solutions like this.

Full Disclosure: Ambir is a Healthcare Scene advertiser.

Ebola and EHR Workflow

Posted on November 20, 2014 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.

Earlier this month, the EHR Workflow fanatic addict expert, Charles Webster, MD, put together a webinar on EHR workflow (imagine that). However, he decided to piggyback the Ebola headline and talk about EHR workflow and a bit about how it applied to the Ebola incident. I love the marketing behind it.

EHR workflow is a topic of interest to me and so this summer I had Charles Webster, MD do an EHR workflow series over on EMR and HIPAA. Turns out, he covers a number of the same EHR workflow topics in the webinar embedded below:
-What it workflow?
-What is workflow technology?
-What is a workflow engine?
-What is a workflow editor?
-What is workflow visibility?

If you have an interest in EHR workflow, here’s Chuck’s webinar:

EHR Requires You to Reconsider Your Workflow

Posted on November 19, 2014 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.

Despite many EHR vendors best efforts to tell you otherwise, an EHR requires every organization to reconsider their workflow. Sure, many of them can be customized to match your unique clinical needs, but the reality is that implementing an EHR requires change. All of us resist change to different degrees, but I have yet to see an EHR implementation that didn’t require change.

What many people don’t like to admit is that sometimes change can be great. As humans, we seem to focus too much on the down side to change and have a hard time recognizing when things are better too. A change in workflow in your office thanks to an EHR might be the best thing that can happen to you and your organization.

One problem I’ve seen with many EHRs is that they do a one off EHR implementation and then stop there. While the EHR implementation is an important one time event, a quality EHR implementation requires you to reconsider your workflow and how you use your EHR on an ongoing basis. Sometimes this means implementing new features that came through an upgrade to an EHR. Other times, your organization is just in a new place where it’s ready to accept a change that it wasn’t ready to accept before. This ongoing evaluation of your current EHR processes and workflow will provide an opportunity for your organization to see what they can do better. We’re all so busy, it’s amazing how valuable sitting down and talking about improvement can be.

I recently was talking with someone who’d been the EHR expert for her organization. However, her organization had just decided to switch EHR software vendors. Before the switch, she was regularly visited by her colleagues to ask her questions about the EHR software. With the new EHR, she wasn’t getting those calls anymore (might say something good about the new EHR or bad about the old EHR). She then confided in me that she was a little concerned about what this would mean for her career. She’d kind of moved up in the organization on the back of her EHR expertise and now she was afraid she wouldn’t be needed in that capacity.

While this was a somewhat unique position, I assured her that there would still be plenty of need for her, but that she’d have to approach it in a little different manner. Instead of being the EHR configuration guru, she should becoming the EHR optimization guru. This would mean that instead of fighting fires, her new task would be to understand the various EHR updates that came out and then communicate how those updates were going to impact the organization.

Last night I had dinner with an EHR vendor who told me that they thought that users generally only used about 50% of the features of their EHR. That other 50% of EHR features presents an opportunity for every organization to get more value out of their EHR software. Whether you tap into these and newly added EHR features through regular EHR workflow assessments, an in house EHR expert who’s constantly evaluating things, or hiring an outside EHR consultant, every organization needs to find a way to regularly evaluate and optimize their EHR workflow.

Burned In EHR Workflows

Posted on November 7, 2014 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.

One of the hospital CIOs at The Breakaway Group focus group at the CHIME Fall Forum talked about what he called “Burned IN EHR Workflows.” I thought the concept was really interesting and no doubt something we can all relate with. We all know when the workflows we do are finally burned into our psyche. We often call it our daily routine and we all hate when our routine is disrupted.

As I thought about this idea, I wondered at what point the EHR workflow is finally “burnt in.” There are a lot of factors that go into burning in the EHR workflow. I’d say it rarely happens during EHR training. Although, with the right EHR training it could be the case. The key question is how well your EHR training emulates the actually environment and workflow of the user. Are you just training them on the EHR software or are you training them on the EHR workflow with the new EHR software? I always did the later and found it so much more effective.

As another CIO at CHIME said, “Users don’t want to know the 10 ways to do the same thing. They want to know the single most effective way to do it.” Of course, figuring out the most effective way to do something is the hard part and why so many EHR trainings fall short.

The good thing about burnt in EHR workflows is that if you’ve implemented a great workflow, then it’s great. The problem is that we often burn in sub optimal EHR workflows. I had this happen to me all the time. I’d ask one of my EHR users why they did something a certain way when it would be so much easier to do it another way. It was just the way the EHR workflow was burnt in.

Changing that already burned in EHR workflow is really hard. Although, it’s not impossible and is often necessary. You just have to burn in a new workflow. However, it also often requires an explanation of why the new workflow is better. Good luck changing someone’s workflow when they liked the old workflow. You better have a good reason or they’re unlikely to change.

What Are the Merits of the Hybrid Workflow?

Posted on June 2, 2014 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.

In my regular series of Google Plus hangouts, I had a chance to interview Vishal Gandhi, Founder and CEO of ClinicSpectrum. I was most interested with Vishal’s almost obsessive view of the value of the hybrid workflow in healthcare. You can watch the video below to see all of the ways he applies the hybrid workflow and what he means by it, but it’s basically a mix of technology and people power to improve any workflow. I think the idea has a lot of merit and needs to be applied to a lot more areas of healthcare. Like I’ve said many times, just because there could be a technology solution doesn’t mean it’s the best or the right solution.

Be sure to check out all of our Healthcare IT and EHR videos.

When an EHR Pilot Makes Sense

Posted on May 6, 2014 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.

I’ve been a real fan lately of Dr. Jayne’s in the trenches commentary on the EHR implementations she’s apart of as CMIO. In her latest post she offered some really valuable insight into the integration of a physician group her health system purchased. The physician group wanted a bunch of custom content and Dr. Jayne’s team had convinced them of half of their recommendations and then she offers this insight:

At this point and given their resistance, I can get on board with half. It’s certainly more than none. Through discussion of their actual needs and observing their workflow, we’ve even identified a handful of customizations that we’re going to advocate that our vendor incorporate into the product out of the box. Ultimately, what allowed us to get the agreement we achieved was the idea they will be piloting the changes for a couple of months after the upgrade and then we’ll revisit them.

We added the pilot approach when we sensed they were stuck in analysis paralysis. The reluctance of the identified physician champions to make decisions was palpable. They feared backlash from their colleagues and claimed to be unable to reach consensus.

I had a somewhat similar situation happen to me on my first EHR implementation. The clinic had real fears about the transition to EHR. However, they needed to replace some old bubble scanning sheets which were no longer supported on this really old system. So, instead of going all in with a full EHR implementation, we did a partial EHR implementation as a kind of “pilot” for the clinic.

What resulted from this was really amazing. A week or so into the partial EHR implementation, the providers started asking us why we weren’t using the rest of the EHR features. In fact, some of them started using the other features before we even asked or trained them on it. I still remember walking into the director’s office and saying, “They’re asking me why we aren’t using all of the EHR features.” We quickly corrected that and implemented the full EHR a few weeks later.

You should never underestimate the value of jealousy. If you let a few people play with the shiny new toy, the others will be jealous. Of course, you better make sure that the shiny new toy works as proposed. Plus, don’t get sick with Pilotitis either.

Dr. Jayne also offered this powerful insight which says a lot about her as a leader in her institution:

I’ve been through this enough times to know what kinds of darts their colleagues might start throwing, so I was happy to offer myself as a virtual human shield. If using the larger health system as the scapegoat for required change is what it takes to move them ahead, so be it.

There are a lot of ways to deal with the “darts” of colleagues. Although, the best answer to the problem is having a real leader with a vision and understanding of where you want to take your EHR. Having a great leader at the helm of an EHR implementation has been the key difference between the good and bad EHR implementations I’ve seen.

NIST Dissects Workflow: Is Anyone Biting?

Posted on March 26, 2014 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.

Psst. Hey, Buddy, wanna see an EHR, visit’s workflow? Here it is, thanks to the National Institutes of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) new report, NISTIR 7988, Integrating Electronic Health Records into Clinical Workflow, etc.

Returning Patient Ambulatory Workflow NIST

What It Represents

NIST wants to make EHRs usable and useful. It first took aim at patient safety EHR functions that endangered, confused users or were error prone. To counter these, it developed and recommended EHR usability protocols.

Now, in an extensive report, it’s tackled EHR workflow to determine where problems occur. The result is a comprehensive work with significant findings and recommendations. The question is: Is anyone listening?

NIST’s Analytical Approach

NIST decided to create a typical workflow by interviewing knowledgeable physicians, who it calls Subject Matter Experts, SMEs. The physicians had different specialties and used different EHRs, though who they were, NIST doesn’t say.

From their discussions, NIST’s analysts created the above chart, NIST’s Figure 2. NIST’s authors recognize that actual workflows will vary based on setting, sequences, staffing, etc., but that it provides a useful way to look at these issues.

What They Did With It

Working with their physicians, NIST’s analysts broke down the workflow into three sections: before, during and after the visit. Then, they broke down, or decomposed, each of those sections, like opening nested Russian dolls. For example, they segmented the physician’s encounter, below, and once again, broke each down into its functions.

Returning Patient, Physician Encounter - NIST

What They Found

It was at this stage the analysts found significant variations among the EHRs used by their physicians,

[T]here appeared to be high variation in whether and how the EHR was used during this period, how extensive each of the activities typically were for each SME, different based upon the type of patient, how complex the patient was, context of how busy the day was, and other factors. NSTIR 7988, p 18.

Despite these differences, the physicians identified two issues that crossed their EHRs:

  • Working Diagnoses. The physicians wanted systems that let them create a working diagnosis and modify it as they worked until they made a final diagnosis. Similarly, they wanted to be able to back up and make changes as needed, something current systems make hard.
  • Multiple Diagnoses. Diagnoses usually involve multiple causes, not single factors. They wanted their EHRs to support this.

These types of issues aren’t new to those familiar with EHR problems. What’s new is NIST, as an independent, scientific organization, defining, cataloguing and explaining them and their consequences.

What They Recommended

From this work, NIST’s analysts developed extensive and persuasive recommendations, in three categories:

  • EHR Functions
  • System Settings, and
  • System Supports

EHR Functions

NIST’s recommends reducing practitioner workload, while increasing their options and supports. For example, they suggest:

  • Workload Projections. Give practitioners a way to see their patient workloads in advance, so they can plan their work more effectively
  • Notes to Self. Let users create reminder notes about upcoming visit issues or to highlight significant ,patient information. These would be analogous to their hand written notes they used to put on paper charts.
  • Single Page Summaries. Create single page labs summaries rather than making users plow through long reports for new information.
  • Single Page Discharge Summaries. Eliminate excessive boiler plate with more intelligent and useful discharge sheets.
  • Highlight Time Critical Information. Segregate time critical information. Often they get mixed in with other notices where they may be overlooked or hard to find.
  • Allow Time Pressure Overrides. When time is critical, EHRs should allow skipping certain functions.
  • System Settings

NIST recommendations echo the familiar litany of issues that characterize poor implementations:

  • Allow Patient Eye Contact. Exam room designs should put the doctor and patient in a comfortable, direct relationship with the computer as a support.
  • Login Simplification. Allow continuous logins or otherwise cut down on constant login and outs.

System Supports

The physicians recognized they often caused workflow bottlenecks. NIST recommended off loading work to medical assistants, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, etc.. For example, physician assistants could draft predicted orders for routine situations for the physician to review and approve.

Progress Note Frustrations

In the thorny area of clinical documentation, the report details physician frustration with their EHRs. All experienced excessive or missing options, click option hell, excessive output, puzzling terms, etc. These were compounded by time consuming system steps that did not aid in diagnosis or solving patient problems. The report discusses their attempts at improving documentation:

Several of the SMEs had attempted and then abandoned strategies to increase the efficiency of documentation. One SME reported that copying and pasting and “smart text” where typing commands generate auto-text had a “vigilance problem.” The issue was that it would be too easy to put the wrong or outdated information in or in the wrong place and not detect it, and then someone later, including himself, could act on it not realizing that it was incorrect.

One physician described an attempt to use automated speech recognition for dictation for a patient with scleritis, which is inflammation of the white of the eye. He stopped using the software when what was documented in the note was “squirrel actress.”

Another SME described that colleagues relied upon medical assistants to draft the note and then completed it, but they did not like that approach because it was too tempting to rely upon what was typed without reviewing it, and he felt the medical knowledge level was not high enough for this task.

One SME described a reluctance to use any scribe, including a medical student, because the risk would be too high of misunderstanding and thus not correctly documenting the historical information, diagnosis, and treatment plan. This was particularly problematic if the physician had information from prior visits, which contributed to these elements, which were not discussed in detail during the visit. NSTIR 7988, p. 28

Coding their diagnoses into progress notes also came in for criticism:

All SMEs described frustration with requirements to enter information into progress notes, …, which were applied to the notes in order to have sufficient justification to receive reimbursement for services. Although all of the SMEs acknowledged the central importance of receiving reimbursement in order to function as a business, this information was often not important for clinical needs. NSTIR 7988, p. 28

Role Based Progress Note

Unlike other areas of the report, the doctors could not agree on what to do, nor does NIST offer any specific cures for documentation problems. Instead, NIST recommends using a new, role based, progress note:

[T]he progress note for a primary care physician would have a different view from a specialist such as a urologist physician, who might not need to see all of the information displayed to the primary care physician. Similarly, the view of the note for primary care providers could differ from the view of a billing and coding specialist. … NSTIR 7988, p. 28

Will ONC Respond?

In this and its prior reports, NIST covers a lot of EHR issues making sensible recommendations that not only improve functionality, but more importantly improve patient safety. However, NIST’s recommendations are just that. It’s not a regulatory agency, nor is supposed to be one. Instead, its role is to work with industry and experts to develop usable, practical approaches to tough technical, often safety related, problems. To its credit, it’s done this in a vast number of fields from airplane cockpits, nuclear reactors, and atomic clocks to bullet proof vests.

However, its EHR actions have not gained any noticeable traction. If any EHR vendor has implemented NIST’s usability protocols, they haven’t said so. They are not alone.

Notably ONC, one of NIST’s major EHR partners, refuses to incorporate any of NIST’s usability recommendations. Instead, ONC requires vendors to implement User Centered Design, but does not define it, letting each vendor do that for themselves.

NIST has many answers to common EHR workflow and usability problems. The question is, who will bring them to bear?