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Some Methods For Improving EMR Alerts

Posted on June 25, 2015 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 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.

A new study appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association has made some points that may turn out to be helpful in designing those pesky but helpful alerts for clinicians.

Making alerts useful and appropriate is no small matter. As we reported on a couple of years ago, even then EMR alert fatigue has become a major source of possible medical errors. In fact, a Pediatrics study published around that time found that clinicians were ignoring or overriding many alerts in an effort to stay focused.

Despite warnings from researchers and important industry voices like The Joint Commission, little has changed since then. But the issue can’t be ignored forever, as it’s a car crash waiting to happen.

The JAMIA study may offer some help, however. While it focuses on making drug-drug interaction warnings more usable, the principles it offers can serve as a model for designing other alerts as well.

For what it’s worth, the strategies I’m about to present came from a DDI Clinical Decision Support conference attended by experts from ONC, health IT vendors, academia and healthcare organizations.

While the experts offered several recommendations applying specifically to DDI alerts, their suggestions for presenting such alerts seem to apply to a wide range of notifications available across virtually all EMRs. These suggestions include:

  • Consistent use of color and visual cues: Like road signs, alerts should come in a limited and predictable variety of colors and styles, and use only color and symbols for which the meaning is clear to all clinicians.
  • Consistent use of terminology and brevity: Alerts should be consistently phrased and use the same terms across platforms. They should also be presented concisely, with minimal text, allowing for larger font sizes to improve readability.
  • Avoid interruptions wherever possible:  Rather than freezing clinician workflow over actions already taken, save interruptive alerts that require action to proceed for the most serious situation. The system should proactively guide decisions to safer alernatives, taking away the need for interruption.

The research also offers input on where and when to display alerts.

Where to display alert information:  The most critical information should be displayed on the alert’s top-level screen, with links to evidence — rather than long text — to back up the alert justification.

When to display alerts: The group concluded that alerts should be displayed at the point when a decision is being made, rather than jumping on the physician later.

The paper offers a great deal of additional information, and if you’re at all involved in addressing alerting issues or designing the alerts I strongly suggest you review the entire paper.

But even the excerpts above offer a lot to consider. If most alerts met these usability and presentation standards, they might offer more value to clinicians and greater safety to patients.

Fixing EMR Drawbacks

Posted on October 17, 2011 I Written By

Priya Ramachandran is a Maryland based freelance writer. In a former life, she wrote software code and managed Sarbanes Oxley related audits for IT departments. She now enjoys writing about healthcare, science and technology.

FierceHealthIT editor Ken Terry had a recent post on the need for better human-computer interfaces in EMRs. He highlighted a few areas where EMRs could stand some improvement, and I thought they were bang on. These are aspects I’ve thought about a great deal myself, and true to the Steve Jobs dictum of staying foolish, I’m offering some solutions to these oft-mentioned problems. I’m sure there are plenty of people who have already thought of these and better solutions, but here we go:

1) Initial Data Entry – The biggest headache for providers’ offices today is what to do with all those boxes of medical records. Scanning solutions exist but they leave you with unstructured data. Manual extraction is time-consuming and requires upfront investment. I’ve pondered for a while about this. I think on-demand data extraction might be the way to go. Provider offices know ahead of time what their weekly, even monthly appointments are. If a provider’s office digitizes the records of patients with upcoming appointments every week, it should have most of its records digitized by end of year. This is assuming patients make it to the doctor’s office for at least once-a-year appointments if not more. If the office outsources this work, it needs some monetary investment, no doubt, but such a setup might be affordable since it is pay-as-you-go.

2) Templating – Terry states that many doctors hate the templates that come with most EMRs. And templates make it easy to generate pages and pages of verbiage which say exactly the same thing for patients with similar profiles, or say very little that is meaningful. Surely customizable or extensible templates can get rid of this problem. Or speech-to-text dictation that allows the doctor to mirror practices from not so long ago.

3) Alert Overload – Many EMRs are designed to issue alerts for adverse drug interactions, prompts for patients and similar such decision support tools. But too few of these and you risk not asking the right questions. Too many providers just ignore them, or worse, override them. No easy solutions for this one, except maybe to figure out where the fine line lies between lack of decision support and too many alerts.

4) Interoperability – EMRs cannot talk to each other. So a patient who moves from one provider to another is really at the mercy of software whimsies. Or worse. For providers, it’s equally frustrating not to be able to get ahold of the patient records in a format suitable for their particular EMR software. One simple answer – standards. Granted HL7 is still evolving, but EMR vendors need to at least consider offering data exports in this format.