Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Guest Blog: EMRs and primary care

Josh Freeman, MD is Chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. The following is an excerpt from a post first published on his blog, Medicine and Social Justice.


One of the centerpieces of health reform as promulgated by almost everyone, and very much the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the use of electronic medical records (EMR, also called, in a more inclusive formulation, electronic health records, or EHR). The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) specifically addresses specifications for EMRs. Demonstration of effective use of EMRs, including “e-prescribing” (in which prescriptions are routed electronically directly from the physician’s office to the patient’s pharmacy of choice), maintenance of patient registries (who in your practice has diabetes?) and compliance with a set of quality measures (What percent of the people in your practice with diabetes have had their sugar measured? What percent are in control?) account for a great deal of the added payment for chronic disease management, as well as payment for patient-centered medical homes.

EMRs are a good thing for many reasons. At the simplest level, the fact that the records are online, rather than in paper charts, means that they don’t get “lost” and any doctor can see the notes of any other doctor. A number of years ago, prior to going to a real EMR, a large public hospital with many clinics where temporarily lost charts often meant that patient notes generated in one clinic visit were unavailable to another clinic, scanned literally millions of pages into a very basic EMR. While having none of the advantages described below, even this primitive method was a real step forward for them in being able to access the records. At their best, EMRs allow effective communication between doctors in a practice. For large multispecialty practices, this can also be between different specialists, and can even be integrated with the hospital’s medical record so that information from hospitalizations is immediately available in the same “chart”. The more that information is put in “digitally retrievable” format rather than free text, the more easily and thoroughly that a patient’s health trajectory can be understood. This is not only for numeric values, such as lab results and blood pressures that can be displayed on a flowsheet or graph, but even for history and physical items: Was that heart murmur present at the last visit? What is the history of the different medications that the patient has been on? Patient registries become an effective way of evaluating and improving the care given in the entire practice, not just for one patient, and are almost impossible without an EMR.

EMRs are not problem-free, however. The most common issue for physicians is that charting takes longer; filling in all this data takes time. This is worst when a new EMR is implemented, as old data has to be input, but continues to be, on average, more time consuming than paper charting. In part, this may be because the notes are “more thorough,” or, looking at it the other way, that paper chart notes were inadequate. But it is also because the very structured nature of the EMR requires that a significant number of things be entered/clicked (even to indicate “not applicable” or its digital equivalent) that would have appropriately not been mentioned in a paper note. Much of this added documentation goes beyond the information necessary to provide medical care for the patient, but is required to comply with government regulations and ensure that the document is “legally” sound. In addition, some of those regulations require the physician, as opposed to another health professional such as a nurse, to personally document certain items in the record, often to a degree that seems unreasonable to physicians.

There is an ironic turn to this. Most discussion in public policy circles is directed to increased inter-professional function and teamwork, as characterized by the patient-centered medical home. In part, this is because the current and projected shortage of primary care physicians means that there is no way that they, working alone, will be able to meet the health needs of the American people; if they are already working on a “hamster wheel” (see Family Medicine in the Era of Health Reform - 3, May 23, 2011), the changes described by Phillips (see Primary Care, Medical School Debt, and US Health Needs: Analysis from the Graham Center, May 30, 2011 ) and discussed in detail by Margolius and Bodenheimer[1], will increase the burden beyond any hope of sustainability. In addition, an effectively functioning team of health professionals (including nurses, pharmacists, social workers, and others[2]) makes for higher quality care. This is very clearly articulated in Dr. Atul Gawande’s recent address to the Harvard Medical School commencement, “Cowboys and Pit Crews” published on his New Yorker blog.

The irony is that the increased requirements mentioned above, sometimes explicitly stated in law, but often in federal regulations and most commonly by Medicare “carriers” and interpreted by institutional compliance officers, have increased what the physician needs to document in the medical record (and, by implication, have actually done him or herself). These requirements both decrease effective team function, and increase the burden of electronic charting.

As in any new technology that increases the ease of accomplishing something, or the availability of a person or data, there is the corresponding tendency to expect it; this often has the ironic effect of increasing, rather than decreasing, workload. The internet and email allow us to work from home; cell phones, pagers, and email all increase our availability even when not at work or at home. This allows us more flexibility, but it has also led to the expectation of immediate access and, for many professionals including physicians, the virtual elimination of the concept of “work” versus “off” hours. The electronic medical record allows me to chart from home – or anywhere I can get an internet connection – and so I do.

An interesting, and perhaps important, sidelight of the introduction of the EMR in our family medicine clinic was that the implementation team, composed of experts from the computer company and “superusers” of nurses from our group practice, saw how much more complicated the practice – and thus the documentation – is in primary care than in other specialties. In most sub-specialty practices, a few diagnoses -- and thus a few types of workflow and documentation strategies -- account for almost all visits, while in primary care the breadth of encounters in a single session, combined with the complexity of dealing with multiple chronic conditions based in a variety of organ systems rather than one, is breathtaking (see, for example, Primary Care: What takes so much time? And how are we paying for it?, May 21, 2010, "Uncomplicated" Primary Care?, Oct 8, 2009). Contrary to what they had been led to believe, they discovered that primary care was harder and more complex and more difficult to document – and of course required seeing more patients in shorter amounts of time for less reimbursement (which also leads to an ability to afford fewer support staff). This team, at least, gained a new respect for what primary care practice involves.