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The EMR and the Case of the Disappearing Patient

The electronic medical record (EMR) is here to stay. Its adoption was initially slow, but over the past decade those hospitals that do not already have it are making plans for implementing it. On the whole this represents progress: the EMR has the ability to greatly improve patient care. Physicians, as well as all other caregivers, no longer have to puzzle over barely legible handwritten notes or flip through pages and pages of a patient’s paper chart to find important information.

With the EMR, it is easy to see what medications a patient is taking, when they were started, and when they were stopped. Physicians can easily find key vital signs – temperature, pulse, respirations, and blood pressure – plotted over any time frame they wish. All the past laboratory data are displayed succinctly. But it is not all gravy.

There is a Problem

I use the EMR every day, and I am old enough to have trained and practiced when everything was on paper. While overall, I am happy to have electronic records, there is a problem: The EMR is trying to serve too many masters. The needs of these various masters are different, and sometimes they are incompatible, even hostile to one another.  These masters include other caregivers, the agencies paying for the care, and those interested in medico-legal aspects of care.  What can happen, and I have seen it many times, is that the needs of the caregivers take a back seat to the needs of the payers and the lawyers. The EMR is supposed to improve patient care, but sometimes it makes it worse. Physician progress notes illustrate how this happens.

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Outlawing Templated Notes in the Electronic Health Record

It was just a matter of time until this would happen.

Buried in the middle of this New York Times article on The Ups and Downs of Electronic Medical Records is the observation that a Medicare administrative contractor dubbed National Government Services has announced that it, on behalf of CMS, will “deny payment” for medical services that are documented in an electronic health record (EHR) using “cloned documentation.”

The topic was covered more than 2 years ago. “Cloned documentation” is the widespread practice of copying, pasting past documentation in an EHR into the current encounter record to inflate the recorded patient evaluation to primarily justify a higher payment. Thanks to this OIG report, the Feds have figured out that the true value proposition for an EHR is not “meaningful use” but wasteful abuse.

In addition to congratulating the Times for their crack cutting-edge reporting, here is a prediction…

1. The mere threat of payment denials and the possibility of sanctions will prompt health administrators everywhere to announce at medical staff meetings that “cloned” notes are verboten.

2. Until the “templated note” functionality is deleted in future EHR software updates, physicians will respond to this latest edict from their administrators in the traditional manner: they’ll ignore it.

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