It’s been a long time since I wrote a post. My life, you see, is incredibly dull and boring. There has been so little to write about that I’ve been at a loss.
No, actually that’s a load of crap. It’s become a fantasy of mine to have such boredom. In reality, my life is as un-boring as it could be. It’s like the part of a story where everything is in flux, where little decisions have huge consequences, and where the inflection point between a comedy and tragedy is located.
So how’s my new practice going? In some ways things are going about as well as they could. My patients are amazed when I answer their emails or (even more surprisingly) answer the phone. ”Hello, this is Dr. Lamberts,” I say. This usually results in a long pause, followed by a confused and timid voice saying something like, “well…uh…I was expecting to get Jamie.” Yet I am often able to deal with their problems quickly and efficiently, forgoing the usual message from Jamie to get to the root of their problem. It’s amazingly efficient to answer the phone.
Financially, the practice has been in the black since the first month, and continues to grow, albeit slowly. The reason for the slow growth is not, as many would predict, the lack of a market for a practice like mine. It’s also not that I am so busy at 250 patients that growth is difficult. In truth, when we aren’t rapidly adding new patients, the work load is nowhere near overwhelming for just me and my nurse. In that sense I’ve proved concept: that it’s not unreasonable to think I can handle 500, and even 1000 patients with the proper support staff and system in place.
Which brings us to the area of conflict, the crisis point of this story: the system I have in place. The hard part for me has been that I have not been able to find tools to help me organize my business so it can run efficiently.
An important study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that misdiagnosis is more common than you might think. According to the study, almost 40% of patients who unexpectedly returned after an initial primary care visit had been misdiagnosed. Almost 80% of the misdiagnoses were tied to problems in doctor-patient communication, and more than half of those problems had to do with things that were missed in the patient’s medical history.
The results of this study shouldn’t be surprising if you’re a regular reader here – they are another example of a system that isn’t working as well as it could for patients, and doctors. Doctors – and the medical professionals who help them in their work – are the best educated and best trained than they have ever been. They have more access to medical information and technology than at any time in our history. And yet, U.S. government data show that the typical doctor visit involves 15 minutes or less with your doctor. Medical records are kept in fragmented, uncoordinated ways.
OK, I’ll admit it: I had no idea. I thought that the whining and griping by other doctors about EMR was just petulance by a group of people who like to be in charge and who resist change. I thought that they were struggling because of their lack of insight into the real benefits of digital records, instead focusing on their insignificant immediate needs. I thought they were a bunch of dopes.
Yep. I am a jerk.
My transition to a new practice gave me the opportunity to dump my old EMR (with all the deficiencies I’ve come to hate) and get a new, more current system.* I figured that someone like me would be able to learn and master a new EMR with ease. After all, I do understand about data schema, structured and unstructured data, I know about MEDCIN, SNOMED, and HL-7 interfaces. Gosh darn it, I am a card-carrying member of the EMR elite! A new product should be a piece of cake! I’ll put my credentials at the bottom of this post, in case you are interested.**
So, imagine my shock when I was confused and befuddled as I attempted to learn this new product. How could someone who could claim a bunch of product enhancements as my personal suggestions have any problem with a different system? The insight into the answer to this sheds light onto one of the basic problems with EMR systems.
Problem 1: Different Languages
As I struggled to figure out my new system, it occurred to me that I felt a lot like a person learning a new language. Here I was: an expert in German linguistics and I was now having to learn Japanese. Both are systems of written and spoken code that accomplish the same task: communication of data from one person to another. Both do so using many of the same basic elements: subjects, objects, nouns, verbs. Both are learned by children and spoken by millions of people. But both are very, very different in many ways.
Everyone, including this blog writer, has been touting the virtues of the vast troves of data already or soon to be available in the electronic health record (EHR), which will usher in the learning healthcare system [1, 2]. There is sometimes unbridled enthusiasm that the data captured in clinical systems, perhaps combined with research data such as gene sequencing, will effortlessly provide us knowledge of what works in healthcare and how new treatments can be developed [3, 4]. The data is unstructured? No problem, just apply natural language processing .
I honestly share in this enthusiasm, but I also realize that it needs to be tempered, or at least given a dose of reality. In particular, we must remember that our great data analytics and algorithms will only get us so far. If we have poor underlying data, the analyses may end up misleading us. We must be careful for problems of data incompleteness and incorrectness.
There are all sorts of reasons for inadequate data in EHR systems. Probably the main one is that those who enter data, i.e., physicians and other clinicians, are usually doing so for reasons other than data analysis. I have often said that clinical documentation can be what stands between a busy clinician and going home for dinner, i.e., he or she has to finish charting before ending the work day.
I also know of many clinicians whose enthusiasm for entering correct and complete data is tempered by their view of the entry of it as a data blackhole. That is, they enter data in but never derive out its benefits. I like to think that most clinicians would relish the opportunity to look at aggregate views of their patients in their practices and/or be able to identify patients who are outliers in one measure or another. Yet a common complaint I hear from clinicians is that data capture priorities are more driven by the hospital or clinic trying to maximize their reimbursement than to aid clinicians in providing better patient care.
The health care crowd is abuzz with The New York Times revelation that Medicare billing rates seem to have increased by billions of dollars in parallel with increased adoption of EHR technologies for both hospitals and ambulatory services. The culprit for this unexpected increase is the measly E&M code. Evaluation and Management (E&M) is the portion of a medical visit where the doctor listens to your description of the problem, takes a history of previous medical issues, inquires about relatives that suffered from various ailments, asks about social habits and circumstances, lets you describe your symptoms as they affect your various body parts, examines your persona and proceeds with diagnosing and treating the condition that brought you to his/her office or hospital.
The more thorough this evaluation and management activity was, and the more complicated your problem is, and the more diagnostic tests are reviewed, and the more counseling the doctor gives you, the more money Medicare and all other insurers will pay your doctor. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?Continue reading…
I appreciate getting notes from specialists. Really. It’s great to be kept in the loop with patients’ care, especially when other doctors are using EMRs that directly fax me notes the same day as the visit. Sometimes, though, things can get a little out of control.
I’ve ranted before about offices that use templated EMRs to generate documentation of things they never actually did. Today I received the following letter:
Reason for the appointment:
1. Abdominal pain
2. Post colonoscopy with biopsy
History of present illness:
1. Abdominal pain: he failed to show up for this appointment
Past medical history:
EGD 2008 negative, EGD 2011 negative, colonoscopy 2005 normal
2010 Chest CT with 3 mm lung nodule, low risk