The Problem-Oriented Medical Record

[This post is Part 2 of a commentary on “Medicine in Denial,”(2011) by Dr. Lawrence Weed and Lincoln Weed. You can read Part 1 here.]

An excellent chapter in “Medicine in Denial” discusses the problem-oriented medical record (POMR), a comprehensive charting approach that Dr. Larry Weed began developing in the late 1950s.

The Weeds begin by detailing what a good health care record should allow clinicians, and the healthcare system to do. In other words, they start by clearly defining the needs of patients, the purpose of the medical record, and the kind of health care it should support.

Specifically, the Weeds make the following points:

  • Managing chronic illness often involves multiple interventions that require adjustment over time, rather than a single treatment that results in cure/resolution. This requires tracking of physiologic variables and medical interventions over time.
  • Chronic care of medically complex patients, especially those with multimorbidity, requires coordination of care among multiple clinicians at multiple sites over time.
  • For the many people suffering from multi-morbidity, chronic medical problems and their associated interventions often interact. This makes it particularly important that care be individualized, and carefully tracked over time.
  • Enabling patient awareness, participation, and commitment is essential, with the Weeds noting that “unavoidable complexity must somehow be made manageable by patients who need to cope with what is happening to their own bodies and minds.”
  • Patient care – and hence the charting of medical data — must be oriented towards a single purpose: individualized medical problem solving for unique patients.

In other words, the Weeds consider the longitudinal, comprehensive, person-centered, individualized, collaborative care of the medically complex patient to be a fundamental base scenario around which we should design healthcare, and healthcare information systems.

This left me deeply impressed, since most of what I read about changing healthcare seems to treat the primary care of medically complex patients as an afterthought, or special use scenario, rather than as the starting point from which we redesign our healthcare tools.

Also impressive to me was the way the Weeds consistently put the involvement of the patient front and center in their thinking:

[Informed patient] involvement requires external standards and tools that patients themselves learn to use, both independently and jointly with their providers. Without that patient involvement, unnecessary complexity and fragmentation occur, as multiple providers intrude on inherently personal decisions that patients are better positioned to manage for themselves.”

Wow. It’s one thing to breezily advocate for patient engagement, and another to work out a healthcare framework that is designed to maximize the patient’s ability to meaningfully engage in, and individualize, his or her own care.

A medical record designed for individualized comprehensive care over time

“The medical record is critical for complex cases involving chronic disease and multiple problems, which is where the largest amount of healthcare resources are consumed.”

Having laid out their priorities, the Weeds state that the key to managing medically complex patients over time is to “use the medical record to organize the myriad processes of care around defined patient needs.”

Organization and order in the medical record is key, of course. The Weeds outline the following core four components for the POMR:

  • A defined database of information, to store the relevant information that has been gathered;
  • A problem list, with problems defined in terms of the patient’s needs;
  • Plans of action for each problem, developed in light of the other problems;
  • Progress notes on each problem, which document the process of following up, including gathering of feedback and adjusting the plan over time.

Importantly, the Weeds consider psychosocial problems to be significant, and say they should be included in the problem list. They also describe the creation of a patient profile describing the patient’s family and living situation, noting that “these data are essential for the practitioner to understand the patient’s ability to cope with medical problems and to work realistically with the patient in setting goals and planning for diagnosis and management.”

Advocates for patient-centered care, take note!

How to actually use the POMR in practice? The Weeds write:

“A problem-oriented structure requires that all practitioners record each plan and progress note by the specific patient problem to which it relates. The patient’s total medical situation is summarized by a complete problem list appearing at the first page or screen of record…Enforcing the POMR standard means that individually relevant information is collected, considered, and acted upon by all practitioners and the patient over time, with the patient’s total situation taken into account every step of the way.”

Hm. Although I think we can and should do a much better job of following up on patients’ problems over time, I found myself wondering how exactly the POMR can ensure that all problems are considered when making a plan for a specific problem.

For instance, many elderly patients have 15-20 items on their problem list, and they would probably have more if providers were comprehensive and documented everything that is a problem for the patient (issues such as sleep, pain, and falls are often underrecognized).

Even if we work with a chart that makes it possible for us to view a comprehensive problem list, it’s still a significant cognitive challenge to hold all those factors in one’s mind as one considers options for moving forward on a particular problem. And what do people tend to do when faced with cognitive effort? They tend to avoid it, especially if they are rushed, tired, or stressed. (Read the work of Daniel Kahnemanand others if you are skeptical.)

Now, clinicians are of course capable of putting forth cognitive and emotional efforts, but realistically, it’s very difficult to sustain such focus during several back-to-back visits.

Hence, I found myself feeling a bit the same about the POMR as I did regarding the Weeds’ ideas on standardized inputs and knowledge coupling: sounds like an excellent idea in theory, but also sounds labor-intensive and more than a little challenging to implement under current practice conditions.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t seriously consider using the POMR. The Weeds are entirely correct when they point out that the failure to follow-up on problems is a serious, endemic problem with grave repercussions for patients and society. Especially when it comes to older patients with multiple problems, it can be very easy for problems like depression, incontinence, falls, or memory complaints to fall through the cracks as clinicians gravitate in a rushed visit to tinkering with blood pressure or diabetes management.

And we would almost certainly be providing better care over time if our charting methods made it possible to easily see how a given problem had been managed over time. For instance, in many cases, it’s actually quite difficult to find out how a patient’s high blood pressure or other chronic condition has been managed over the past few years. What medications have been tried and why were they changed? What related tests were done? We often find ourselves asking the patient for this information, or worse yet, not even taking the time to ask these questions because time is so short.

As the Weeds note:

“Without well-structured progress notes, clinicians can easily fail to recognize trends and correlations in data, lose track of significant test results, fail to consider interactions among multiple problems, or fail to coordinate their activities with other practitioners. These failings occur particularly with chronic illness.

So true.

The organized clinician’s guide to making a plan, and engaging patients

In line with their orderly bent, the Weeds’ POMR model includes detailed suggestions as to how to document the plan for each problem. They propose the following element set for initial management plans:

  • Basis: this refers to the abnormalities/complaints that are evidence for the problem
  • Status: whether the problem is getting worse, better, or staying the same
  • Disability: this requires understanding the problem’s significance from the patient’s perspective (!)
  • Goal: this should be articulated after conversation with the patient and after considering all other problems affecting the patient
  • Follow course
    • Parameters to monitor course and status of problem
    • Parameters to monitor response to therapy
  • Investigate further
    • Hypotheses to be investigated
    • Measures to investigate each hypothesis
  • Complications to watch for

I found myself yet again impressed. Does your doctor do this when they diagnose you with a medical problem? I wish I could be doing this for my patients, but the truth is I often just rely on my brain to try to cover all these angles. Which means I’m not as consistently thorough as I’d like to be.

The element set above also struck me as a genuinely useful framework to support today’s all-important theme of “patient engagement.” To begin with, consistently documenting disability and goals would go a long way towards getting clinicians to understand medical problems from the patient’s perspective.

Then there’s the explicit outlining of the plan to follow the problem, further evaluate it if needed, and the complications to watch for. Imagine what an impact OpenNotes could have, if the notes being opened contained information such as this.

Why aren’t we using the POMR?

The Weeds’ description of the benefits of POMR sound terrific, so how is it that this approach is not yet in widespread use? After all, Dr. Weed developed this framework decades ago, and although the SOAP note remains in wide use, the comprehensive POMR approach itself seems to never have taken off. (I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that despite my long-standing interest in comprehensive primary care, I’d never even heard of Dr. Weed and the POMR until I researched this post

In “Medicine in Denial,” the authors posit that the POMR was never fully embraced because “the disciplines that the POMR imposes are alien to the culture of medicine,” which prefers to allow provider judgements to reign and the personal habits of providers to dictate care.

This strikes me as true, but feels insufficient as an explanation. I found myself wishing that the Weeds would’ve more clearly outlined some additional current obstacles to implementing the POMR approach in the outpatient setting.

Aside from the cultural expectations that physicians have regarding their work, the main obstacles I see to using POMR in primary care for Medicare patients are:

  • Insufficient time allotted to provide care to each patient. Even with a smart POMR-ready EHR system that properly organized information by problem, I’d expect each encounter would require at least 30 minutes of physician time, if not much more.

  • Insufficient financial incentives to practice comprehensive, person-centered, individualized, collaborative care over time. Unless you focus on a population of high utilizers with “ambulatory sensitive conditions,” a POMR approach seems unlikely to reduce hospital and ED utilization enough to keep the ACOs happy.

In other words, even if physicians were to accept that there’s a need for order and structure, I expect it would still be very difficult for them to implement a POMR approach.

Unless, of course, patients were to demand it en masse. Who else has more to gain than the patients and families?

Advocates for patient-centered care, take note!

[Part Three of this commentary on “Medicine in Denial” will be published next week.]

Leslie Kernisan, MD, MPH, has been practicing geriatrics since 2006, and is board-certified in Internal Medicine and in Geriatric Medicine. She blogs at GeriTech.

10 replies »

  1. we built and have been using a POMR that uses multimedia to capture the non actionable material. it also allows patients to contribute to their problem notes when appropriate.

  2. I am trying to do some research about medical devices. I used to work at a doctor’s office and when the sales people would come in to present their products, I found that I am really interested in this field. Thanks for the interesting info.

  3. Setting aside the many objections and quibbles Weed’s work seems to spark, I think we can all agree that medicine is increasingly a team sport. And I think we can further agree that the players are increasingly distributed and varied across skill, experience, commitment, age, geography, etc… We have doctors of various specialities, nurses, pharmacists, dietitians, chiropractors, home care workers, family, etc… all engaged in patient care. And I think we can further agree that it is necessary for the patient record to become the central tool that integrates this diversity into a coherent and effective whole.

    But for the patient record (or any record for that matter) to play such a role it must completely and consistently adhere to some grammar all team members understand in common. No grammar, no communication. No communication, no team. No team, no care — and everyone suffers.

    Furthermore, the least qualified team players (the ones that are the most plentiful and least costly) are unregulated, unaccredited, and have little time and often little aptitude for arcane training. So the grammar must support clarity and simplicity for even unsophisticated players.

    POMR is just one grammar. There may be others you prefer. There may contexts in which it or others are more or less appropriate. But not only is any grammar is better than none at all, without one effective team care (with all of its benefits and cost savings) is impossible.

    I think future EHRs will have to become highly opinionated about grammar — there is no other way to integrate tomorrow’s diverse care teams.

  4. We have found frequent changes in medical health care records which provide proper medical and patient information. So maintaining a perfect medical record might be more helpful in getting patient records. Basically in a health care center we have found various types of patient everyday and to provide them better treatment we used to take the help of medical experts and for further actions we should be prefer medical records.

  5. interesting, thanks. Agree that many doctors have a habit of minimally reading what other providers chart. Even in an intergrated system like the VA, I noticed that most specialists seemed to not read much of my notes…probably because they were long as the patients were elderly and had multiple problems.

  6. The money shot:

    “And we would almost certainly be providing better care over time if our charting methods made it possible to easily see how a given problem had been managed over time. For instance, in many cases, it’s actually quite difficult to find out how a patient’s high blood pressure or other chronic condition has been managed over the past few years. What medications have been tried and why were they changed? What related tests were done? We often find ourselves asking the patient for this information, or worse yet, not even taking the time to ask these questions because time is so short.”

  7. Great article!

    An important footnote: the four core components of the POMR:

    1) Defined database of information
    2) Problem list
    3) Plans of action for each problem
    4) Progress notes on each person

    …become virtually impossible to coordinate and optimize in our evolving scenario where patients have multiple patient portals from multiple care providers.

  8. I’m really pleased that you are enjoying this book. It is thorough and extremely well written and documented. See you at Health 2.0 Refactored. They granted my press pass.