Say It One More Time: EHRs Are Hard To Use

Posted on September 19, 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.

I don’t know about you, but I was totes surprised to hear about another study pointing out that doctors have good reasons to hate their EHR. OK, not really surprised – just a bit sadder on their account – but I admit I’m awed that any single software system can be (often deservedly) hated this much and in this many ways.

This time around, the parties calling out EHR flaws were the American Medical Association and the University of Wisconsin, which just published a paper in the Annals of Family Medicine looking at how primary care physicians use their EHR.

To conduct their study, researchers focused on how 142 family physicians in southeastern Wisconsin used their Epic system. The team dug into Epic event logging records covering a three-year period, sorting out whether the activities in question involved direct patient care or administrative functions.

When they analyzed the data, the researchers found that clinicians spent 5.9 hours of an 11.4-hour workday interacting with the EHR. Clerical and administrative tasks such as documentation, order entry, billing and coding and system security accounted about 44% of EHR time and inbox management roughly another 24% percent.

As the U of W article authors see it, this analysis can help practices make better use of clinicians’ time. “EHR event logs can identify areas of EHR-related work that could be delegated,” they conclude, “thus reducing workload, improving professional satisfaction, and decreasing burnout.”

The AMA, for its part, was not as detached. In a related press release, the trade group argued that the long hours clinicians spend interacting with EHRs are due to poor system design. Honestly, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to connect the study results directly to this conclusion, but of course, the group isn’t wrong about the low levels of usability most EHRs foist on doctors.

To address EHR design flaws, the AMA says, there are eight priorities vendors should consider, including that the systems should:

  • Enhance physicians’ ability to provide high-quality care
  • Support team-based care
  • Promote care coordination
  • Offer modular, configurable products
  • Reduce cognitive workload
  • Promote data liquidity
  • Facilitate digital and mobile patient engagement
  • Integrate user input into EHR product design and post-implementation feedback

I’m not sure all of these points are as helpful as they could be. For example, there are approximately a zillion ways in which an EHR could enhance the ability to provide high-quality care, so without details, it’s a bit of a wash. I’d say the same thing about the digital/mobile patient engagement goal.

On the other hand, I like the idea of reducing cognitive workload (which, in cognitive psychology, refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in working memory). There’s certainly evidence, both within and outside medicine, which underscores the problems that can occur if professionals have too much to process. I’m confident vendors can afford design experts who can address this issue directly.

Ultimately, though, it’s not important that the AMA churns out a perfect list of usability testing criteria. In fact, they shouldn’t have to be telling vendors what they need at this point. It’s a shame EHR vendors still haven’t gotten the usability job done.