For over a hundred years the paper chart has been a trusted partner and best friend to many physicians and nurses. The paper chart was born the day a new patient walked into the office, a pristine, crisp and neatly color-coded folder, with just the right markings in carefully shaped calligraphy on its covers. As the years went by, the paper chart grew in size, acquired meaning and wisdom, and like most of us, became a bit tattered around the edges and heftier in the middle. It felt good to hold the elderly paper chart in your hands and its voluminous physical presence inspired confidence and trust. The paper chart is dead. In some places the paper chart’s pages are still turning slowly, but we all know its long, productive life has come to an end and someone should pull the plug and call it. Or do we?
In 1969 Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed a 5 stage model for typical grieving behavior. The various reactions from the clinical community to the apparent demise of the paper chart exhibit almost textbook adherence to the Kübler-Ross model, with each clinician advancing through the five stages of grief at his/her own pace*.
Denial – This is a joke. These people don’t understand medicine and this entire Obamacare thing will soon go away and we’ll return to normalcy. My practice is doing just fine on paper and my patients get all this fancy medical home care right here and always had. They actually get better care. Besides, I have patients to see and I am too busy to tinker with these fads that come and go every five years or so.
Anger – This is a cruel joke. This EHR thing is just a government ploy to punish doctors and enslave them. There’s nothing in this for me and you want me to pay for it?? We are all going to stop taking Medicare, Medicaid and all your government plans, which don’t even pay for my receptionist, see what you do then. Heck, why stop there? There will be no doctors left, period, because nobody is going to accept such humiliation and no bright students will choose medicine as a career. We can all do much better doing other things. I didn’t go through ten years of medical school and residency and pissed my entire youth away just so I can become your personal data entry clerk. You want data? Enter it yourself and feel free to treat yourself too. Go Google it, or go to an NP at the grocery store. Not to mention that these EHR contraptions are killing thousands of people every day because nurses are tending to EHRs instead of patients. Is that what you want? Suit yourself. I’m out.
Bargaining – This is not happening to me. This does not have to happen to me. I am a doctor. If I stop playing their game, they’ll have no way to touch me. I will only take cash, at least for a while, until this thing blows over. My patients love me and I will take better care of them than any computer can. They know that. They are willing to pay for a true doctor/patient relationship and my undivided attention. I have friends that switched to concierge practice and they’re doing great. I’ll practice good medicine, and in time everybody will come to their senses and see that this is the right way to care for people. They will see the errors of their way and everything will be back to normal. I just have to make it through the next couple of years.
Depression – What’s the point? Why did I have to sacrifice my entire life and work like a dog for these ungrateful people? There’s no respect any more. There is no gratitude. There’s no money in this either. I should have gone to law school and spent my time ripping everybody off like those shyster lawyers do every day. They want me to be a cog in their Toyota production line for people. I don’t know anything about computers. I can’t even type. Why should I? Doctors don’t type. There is no point. Can’t even give this practice away, let alone sell it; might as well just walk out right now. I have a little money. I don’t need to work. I’ll retire early. I’ll play golf all day. Maybe go into consulting for those thieving insurers. One thing’s for sure: no child of mine is ever going to medical school. It’s over.
Acceptance – This EHR is really primitive. Costs a fortune, but the hospital kicked in for most of it. They want to measure my performance; fine with me. I’m a good doctor and I take good care of my patients. I don’t like using the computer in the exam room. My nurse does though, but you should see her texting, and my receptionist says it’s better than the old system. I wish I could get the hospital labs, but they’re still faxing them over. They say it will get better. I don’t know. I have an iPhone and it has an app for medications, which is really nice. I have email and some patients use it. Not too many, but it’s nice too. I signed up for this new telehealth program starting in the fall. My father practiced for 40 years down in the valley. He wasn’t home much, but sometimes he took me along on house calls. Saw the first baby born when I was eight. I don’t think you can deliver a baby on telehealth, can you? Well maybe if there’s a midwife out there and you watch just in case… Never mind. I love practicing medicine. It’s hard right now, but I think I have another ten-fifteen years left in the tank, and if it gets much tougher, maybe I’ll just go work for the hospital. They already have my charts anyway.
But here’s the deal, folks: the chart is not really dead. It just underwent major reconstructive surgery. It has new legs and new organs and a new face, because, unlike people, they can do that for charts nowadays. Sure, it looks terrible right now, all stitched up and bruised and so very helpless, hooked up to wires and machines. It can’t do anything for itself. It moves slowly and sometimes just collapses under its own new weight. You will have to teach it how to use its new legs and train it to engage all those brand new bionic organs. It will take time and lots of physical therapy. It is a big commitment and there will be setbacks and more surgeries down the road. You could just walk out and leave it to its fate and to others to nurture it back to a useful life. Or you could take it home and tend to it, and every day be amazed at small miracles and watch it slowly get stronger, better and more beautiful, surpassing your wildest expectations, until it becomes the indispensable, trustworthy and useful friend it always has been, with a brand new lease on life for you both.
*All first person utterances in this post are fictitious. Any resemblance to what anybody may have said or communicated to the author during times of great frustration is purely coincidental.
Margalit Gur-Arie was COO at GenesysMD (Purkinje), an HIT company focusing on web based EHR/PMS and billing services for physicians. Prior to GenesysMD, Margalit was Director of Product Management at Essence/Purkinje and HIT Consultant for SSM Healthcare, a large non-profit hospital organization. She shares her thoughts about HIT topics and issues at her blog, On Healthcare Technology.