Monday, April 11, 2016

Human Stories Vs. Electronic Medical Records

Dr. Susan Koven describes how, "As hospitals go digital, human stories get left behind".

Dr. Koven described an encounter with a patient, with enormously rich detail. But when she had to record the information in the electronic medical records, the system hampered her ability to tie key connections together:
My warm feelings vanished as I sat down to document the visit. While I’ve used an electronic medical record for several years, Epic, the system my hospital recently adopted, makes recording stories such as the one my patient shared especially difficult. Her grief and her fatigue, which are inseparable in reality, Epic treats as different problems. That she lives alone and there’s conflict in her extended family, which are also inextricable from her symptoms, must be filed under a tab marked “Social Documentation.”

Epic features lists of diagnoses and template-generated descriptions of symptoms and physical examination findings. But it provides little sense of how one event led to the next, how one symptom relates to another, the emotional context in which the symptoms or events occurred, or the thought process of the physician trying to pull together individual strands of data into a coherent narrative. Epic is not well-suited to communicating a patient’s complex experience or a physician’s interpretation of that experience as it evolves over time, which is to say: Epic is not built to tell a story...

The risk of this format, as physician and medical informatics expert Dr. Robert Wachter points out in a blog post, is that we may forget that “patients are more than the sum of their problems.”

A medical record that abandons narrative in favor of a list does more than dehumanize our patients. It also hampers a clinician’s diagnostic abilities. Take a patient I saw recently, a middle-aged woman with palpitations. She was perimenopausal, stressed out at work, having trouble sleeping, drinking lots of coffee to stay awake during the day, and had a family history of heart disease. Any one of those issues might explain her palpitations, but more likely some combination of interrelated factors was causing them. Sorting out the story is crucial to deciding which tests to order and what treatment to recommend.
The electronic records may make life easier for the hospital billing department. And they may make life easier for researchers trying to do population-based studies. But if it hampers the primary care physician's ability to actually care for the patient, we have a problem.