The EHR Report

Our new year’s resolutions


Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better person.

– Benjamin Franklin

Traditionally, the new year is a time for reflection, looking back to review what could have been done better, and looking forward to the opportunity to rectify those inadequacies over the coming year. We thought we would take this opportunity to look at our use of the electronic health record and think about the things we might do over the next year to make our lives easier and our charting better.

Top of our list is a renewed commitment to finish our notes by the end of each session. Too many physicians we know rush through patient hours and then are left with 10-20 notes to finish at the end of the day. Realistically, this is when we least feel like completing notes. Such work encroaches on personal and family time, likely contributes to the burnout that has been increasing among physicians, and is much less likely to accurately represent the encounter than notes completed in real time.

Dr. Chris Notte and Dr. Neil Skolnik

One way of becoming more efficient will involve a new commitment to learning how to use templates and macros more effectively. Templates and macros let us essentially prepopulate our note with the verbiage, tests, and medications that we typically order for the diagnoses we most commonly see.

As we have spoken with many of our colleagues, it has become clear to us that many clinicians have learned how to be “just proficient enough” in their use of their EHR; they are not pulling out their hair every 5 minutes in frustration, but they have not taken the extra time and effort that are needed to optimize their productivity. To efficiently use an EHR requires some time spent designing templates and macros to make it easy to repetitively carry out common tasks.

A lot of physicians – particularly physicians over 40 years of age – are still typing their notes with the ol’ two-finger hunt-and-peck technique. This is incredibly time consuming, inefficient, and frustrating.

While many solutions have been proposed, including having a scribe walk around with the doctor, the simplest and easiest to implement is voice transcription. Even though medical transcription software is expensive, the return on investment is large for those who do not type well. After a short period of training on the software, notes are generally of higher quality and are finished considerably faster than when typing. The technology also has the ability to learn the names of frequently used consultants, medications, and procedures, so users don’t even have to type uncommon names or words.

Another area in which we hope to advance over the next year is working more effectively as a team to share the documentation burden. Nurses and medical assistants – within the boundaries of their licensing – can be empowered to document in predefined areas of the chart as much as possible.

For example, given the fact that the prevalence of depression is about twice as high in patients with diabetes as it is in the general population, our medical assistants now screen our diabetes patients with a PHQ-2 depression screen and record the results in the chart. This has been good for our patients, satisfying for our medical assistants, and has offloaded this task from the doctors.

We need to think of more areas where we can facilitate team care and really make everyone – physicians, nurses, front staff, and patients – more satisfied with the care that is being given.

Most EHRs have a reminder function – the ability to prompt a user to follow up on an abnormal x-ray or lab results in case a patient does not come back into the office as recommended. Our sense is that most of us are not using this function. It is worth finding out how to use it and giving it a try.

Patient portals have gained a lot of traction over the past few years. For a little while, we were really making an effort to have patients register, so that currently many (but by far not most) of our patients have signed up. We want to make better use of this fantastic resource.

We say “fantastic” because when we talk to patients (or friends or family) who use the portal, they have shared that it really makes their lives easier. They are able to see their labs, ponder the meaning of their results (perhaps of a slightly high glucose or an LDL cholesterol level), and if they have questions, they can correspond electronically with their care providers. It enhances care and allows us to spend less time on the phone, while giving patients better access to information.

New year’s resolutions are an opportunity for reflection and optimism. As we look back on the past year, we should learn from our experience and approach the year in front of us with greater enthusiasm, in the hope that through that enthusiasm we can continue to grow, be better and healthier, and simply be more like the people we want to be.

The electronic health record affects all of our interactions with patients and colleagues, and, when not used optimally, encroaches into our personal and family lives. It is a perfect place to focus during the new year to enable us to have more productive, effective, and happier times both in the office and at home.

Dr. Notte is a family physician and clinical informaticist for Abington (Pa.) Memorial Hospital. He is a partner in EHR Practice Consultants, a firm that aids physicians in adopting electronic health records. Dr. Skolnik is associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington Memorial Hospital and professor of family and community medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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