Archive for the 'Reflections' Category

EMRs: It’s the Interface, Stupid*

The reason we all struggle with our EMRs is simple: It’s not so much the underpinnings we object to, but the “User Interface”. And the User Interfaces of EMRs are awkward, to say the least.

UI is the look and functionality of the screen.

For example, if I have an imaging report in my inbox and want to do something about the result, say look at the previous scan the patient had six months ago, let the patient know it was okay, add a new diagnosis to the problem list, arrange or check the date of the followup visit, send a copy with a question or comment to a specialist, look back at what the blood work showed, prescribe or stop a medication, or check a reference website like UpToDate what the best treatment is for what the scan shows – how many clicks does it take to do any of those things, and can I still see or at least get back to the report I just received as I do any of those things? Why don’t I have every single option for what to do with the result right there on the same screen as the result itself?

That’s the essence of our frustration.

Even more basic, and I have lamented about this before, can I read the scan, lab report, consultation note or whatever it is, in one view without scrolling, enlarging, clicking or standing on my head?

If you have only fifty reports to go through every day, and each one takes even just over a minute instead of fifteen seconds to go through, like a paper report used to require, it may not sound like a big deal, but that means about 40 minutes more per day, hardly ever built into your clinic schedule, for that task alone.

Documenting a physical exam with abnormal findings in a structured way, not free texting or speaking, can involve innumerable clicks to get to the findings you need.

For example, click on ENT, then EAR, then scroll down to TUNING FORKS, then scroll to WEBER, scroll to LATERALIZED LEFT, go back to RINNE, and scroll down to POSITIVE or NEGATIVE LEFT and try to remember if bone conduction greater than air conduction is positive or negative because that’s not the terminology you use.

What if the physical exam could be documented by pinching your fingers to zoom in on a touch screen with a body and just pointing to the body part in question and having all the options literally at your fingertips?

If video games can do it, why can’t EMRs?

Just look at these two pictures, courtesy of Bangor ER physician Dr. Jonnathan Busko, and imagine…


*(It’s) “The Economy, stupid”, is an American idiom from the 1992 Clinton-Bush presidential campaign, a phrase coined by Bill Clinton’s campaign manager James Carville to keep the candidate focused on the most important issue(s).

Imagining a Doctor Shortage

Now, I’m just a country doctor, but I have to say I find it very hard to understand why folks in this country on one hand keep talking about a doctor shortage in primary care and on the other hand keep piling sillywork on those of us who are still here. The net effect is that the doctor shortage is going to be a whole lot worse than it has to be.

But it may just be a relative or imaginary shortage because of how this country defines the duties of doctors.

Public Health agendas have infiltrated health care to a degree that threatens to paralyze it. Physicians are increasingly told their primary concern should be their “population” and not their individual patients. We are charged with preventing disease rather than treat it.


Public Health clinics regularly provide travelers with necessary immunizations. Pharmacists are now giving pneumonia and shingles shots on prescription and flu shots without. States are mandating immunizations for children, and penalizing physician practices with low immunization rates. There are whole departments within every level of Government trying to get people tho behave in healthier ways.

Why should we take the heat for something you don’t need a medical license to do?

A physician’s duty is first and foremost to serve each patient’s needs in treating actual disease. Isn’t that what people worry about when they imagine how a physician shortage would affect them?

Let’s think:

Who would worry that with a physician shortage, they wouldn’t get their flu shot?

Who would worry that there would be nobody to tell them to lose weight, stop smoking and eat less junk food?

Who would worry that there would be nobody to screen them for alcohol misuse or domestic abuse?

Who would worry that they’d be at risk for tripping on their scatter rug because there is no doctor to talk with them about their fall risk?

On the other hand:

You’ve had a cough for a month, and you’re short of breath. Who will diagnose your symptoms?

You have a nosebleed that won’t stop by itself. Who will cauterize it for you?

You have diabetes and can’t control your blood sugar with diet alone. Who will prescribe the right medicine for you?

You’ve become increasingly depressed and are at risk of losing your job because of your symptoms. Your therapist suggests you consider medication. Who will prescribe it for you?

America, the choice is yours: What is the best use of your primary care physicians’ time if there aren’t enough of us to be everything for everyone?

Remembering the Inpatient Workup: All the Tests to the Patient’s Bedside

The most high powered rotation in my medical school was Endocrinology. There, you got to see things most doctors never come close to diagnosing themselves. Uppsala University’s Akademiska Hospital served as a referral center for the Swedish population north of Uppsala, an area the size and shape of California.

Back in the seventies, laboratory testing wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now, we didn’t have CT scanners even at the major hospitals, and MRIs weren’t in use yet.

The Endocrinology ward accepted referrals from northern Sweden for evaluation of suspected pheochromocytomas, Cushing’s Disease, Wilson’s Disease and other exotic conditions. The Chief, Professor Boström, had established the most appropriate workup, or “utredning” (investigation), for each type of problem, and patients would undergo these tests in rapid succession with almost real-time interpretation. Within two or three days, they would be on their way home with a diagnosis and treatment recommendations for their local doctors or followup appointments with Uppsala specialists.

The other feature of the Endocrinology ward was that every day, the Chief or his deputy would do rounds with the junior doctors and doctors in training who carried out the testing protocols. Each patient’s progress was presented to the Chief, who would suggest modifications or additional interventions. That way, each patient had the benefit of having the Professor of Medicine oversee their care. This is the way hospital rounds are done everywhere in Sweden; the head of the clinic directly supervises every patient’s care.

Two differences in how health care is delivered in American hospitals stand out:

First, Patients seldom get admitted for testing here. People end up having serial imaging tests as outpatients. Someone with vague upper abdominal pain may go for an ultrasound that shows a normal gall bladder and borderline dilatation of the common bile duct and slightly irregular texture of the liver, followed a week or two later by a CT which shows only a harmless fatty liver but confirms bile duct dilatation. Next, they might have an MRI that suggests a blockage of the bile flow somewhere in the head of the pancreas where there appears to be a tumor. By that time the patient is feeling worse and is suddenly jaundiced and finally gets admitted for an ERCP that provides a tissue diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

Second, the quality of care you receive depends on the hospitalist(s) in charge of your care. They work as a team, but many of them are young or temporary hires who practice without the day to day involvement of hospital clinical leadership. I see patients admitted for the same thing to the same hospital being handled completely differently because somebody else was on duty when they came in.

In Sweden, it seems that even today, bed-nights are relatively inexpensive, and patients are sometimes kept simply for “observation”. Here, bed-nights seem to be a rare and exclusive commodity that cannot be wasted. So we make the patient with chest pain that went away come back on Monday for his stress test if it happens to be Friday. And we get paid the same whether we discharge someone early or end up keeping them a little longer because of the bundled payments of DRGs.

And, oh, here we have to justify “medical necessity” for every admission. So we make an older woman take her laxatives at home and have her grandson drive her 50 or 100 miles to the hospital in the predawn hours for her early morning diagnostic colonoscopy.

In the Socialized system in Sweden, there always was the freedom to admit someone because it was the right thing to do, even if you had to use the diagnosis “Causa Socialis” (social reasons).

I hear there’s even now a diagnosis code for that (ICD-10): Z60.9. I remember using it during my early years in practice there.

Sometimes you need to do what’s right for the patient. Actually, we should always do what’s right for the patient.

EMRs Should Be Like Rental Cars

When a new doctor joined our clinic, she spent a week learning our electronic medical record. She had used two other systems before, so she was no stranger to EMRs, but that’s how different they can be.

That’s crazy.

EMRs should be like cars, which range from the likes of Smart to Mercedes Maybach from Daimler, Mini to Rolls Royce from BMW or Skoda to Porsche from the Volkswagen group of companies. They range from simple to sophisticated, from nimble city cars to opulent highway cruisers.

There are occasional differences like type of fuel, battery, ethanol or gasoline powered, steering wheel shift paddles or voice controlled entertainment systems, and the driving experience varies wildly between marques but you could probably pick up just about any car as a rental vehicle, learn the basics and safely be on the road within just a few minutes.

For example, one country doctor, who shall remain unnamed, worked for over a year with an EMR which he explained to his patients wouldn’t tell him if any new reports had come in since they were in last. One day, by accident, he discovered a tab on the right hand panel of the computer screen, labeled DRTLA, that does just that – Diagnostic imaging, Referrals, Telephone calls, Labs and Actions, plus other incoming documents, neatly arranged. Somehow the implementation process skipped over that feature. That is just one of many functionalities of my particular EMR a new user wouldn’t be able to figure out very easily on their own.

A rental car would be considered dangerous if the shifter didn’t look somewhat like shifters in other cars, or if the windshield washer fluid and coolant caps weren’t easily distinguishable.

Similarly, a car would be considered unsafe and illegal if the windshield was only a few inches wide, and if drivers had to press a button or two in order to see the whole road in front of them. But that is how each lab report, like a Complete Blood Count, shows up on that same EMR.

And, now I know this, of course, but why is the “send” button on my prescription module marked “fax”, with a drop down menu choice of electronic prescription, which is the way we have to send prescriptions to comply with Meaningful Use? To confuse clinicians? I can think of no other reason.

A child, or a middle aged physician, can pick up an iPhone and quickly work the basic features by intuition, and wouldn’t be completely lost if suddenly handed an Android phone instead.

And, truth be known, my iPhone does some things better and faster than my million dollar EMR. And some inexpensive cars are more reliable than high prized exotics.

Doctors Should Be Paid Like Athletes

Think about it, athletes aren’t the ones who document their performance. It’s other people that keep the score. That’s a whole science in itself. People talk for hours after the game or tournament is over about how each athlete did this or that in whatever way they did it and the numbers are in many cases captured by extremely sophisticated electronic equipment.

Physicians work hard to diagnose and treat their patients, and on top of that, we have to do all the work of documenting what we did and how we did it. It isn’t enough that we make a correct diagnosis or provide an incredibly effective treatment. We have to code and document so that accountants, lawyers and the general public can understand what we did.

Our medical charts are now instruments for billing and, sadly, less and less of a tool for us. I suppose it is a bit like if a baseball coach in America had to speak to his/her team so that any Swedes or Martians accidentally present could also understand what was going on. (Baseball is not big in Sweden, or on Mars.)

Now, you might think doctors aren’t worth the millions we pay our professional athletes. I’m not going to argue with you on that one, but I will point out that the medical spending controlled by your average family doctor, through direct care, tests and consultations ordered, emergency room visits and hospitalizations – per capita spending multiplied by the number of patients cared for – is in the ten million dollar ballpark, to borrow a term from America’s favorite sport.

My point is, why do we have to input the data with our own, in my case, two typing fingers, when professional sports doesn’t make athletes keep their own score? The technology is there in other arenas (sorry, the sports terminology keeps popping up), so why not in ours?

The Illusion of “Other People’s Money”

The problem with healthcare, and drug prices, in America isn’t that we spend too much money. The real problem is that we believe we are spending “other people’s money”.

Yes, I was raised in Sweden, but no, I’m not a Socialist. But the irony is that “free” healthcare there is more clearly understood to be directly financed by local(!) taxes that can go up if people in that region consume more healthcare. Here, nobody really knows what anything healthcare related actually costs, or who pays how much, so how can we really care about the cost of healthcare?

Here, most health insurance is financed by employers, and I don’t believe the average American worker is lying awake at night worrying that his family’s medical bills will eat into the corporate profits of his employer. And even if American workers bear some of the costs of their health insurance, the relationship between how much healthcare they consume and how much their portion of the insurance premium will go up is less than obvious, depending on who else is insured in the same risk pool as each particular worker’s employer sponsored insurance.

The Swedes have, in spite of their minimal churchgoing, a set of ethics that relates their personal choices to the impact they have on society as a whole. They recycle batteries instead of throwing them away, they worry about air pollution – so much that it is illegal to idle your car for more than 60 seconds, for example when the bridge over the canal in my home town opens to let a tall ship through. My former countrymen also care deeply about how waste in the healthcare system can affect the availability of healthcare for vulnerable people.

Another thing they are more sensitive about than we are over here is corporate greed. The examples on this side of the Atlantic are so many, and occur so frequently that we soon forget each individual case. What we do retain is the regrettable sense that healthcare is a dirty business where someone is always taking advantage of someone; providers cheat Medicare, insurers cheat patients, drug companies cheat them all.

What we need in this country is a moral wake up call, whether that comes as a crisis or a disruptive innovation. It is obvious that Government regulation and oversight has done relatively little to reduce the “Wild West” behavior and mentality of the big players in our “industry”.

The first thing we need to do is scrap the concept of health insurance, because insurance is when something expensive but unusual and infrequent is paid from a pool of money that a lot more people pay into than withdraw from. In America today, everybody draws from that pool of money, even for things that are completely predictable, like having a baby or even an annual physical (except if you have Medicare, and then you get a Wellness Visit, but that’s another story). That means every single transaction of healthcare in this country becomes a profit center for one or more types of middleman, who most of the time adds little value but draws handsome revenue from what they do.

If we are trying to cover everybody for everything, let’s call it what it is, Socialized medicine. But are we ready, today, for a society where we all stop and consider the common good before we ask for that MRI, “just to know what’s going on”, or where drug prices are negotiated between a “single payer” like CMS or each State Health Department and the drug companies?
I believe the citizens of my adopted homeland prefer to have more freedom of choice than a Socialist system usually offers, and I believe that by having both the ability to choose and the responsibility to pay for services, we can make the healthcare value equation come out more even.

And, I’m sorry, but if we reign in the excesses of insurers and drug companies, American patients may act more responsibly, but as long as the gauging, fraud and abuse continue to be rampant in the industry, there will be no loyalty between patients and “the system”.

Then, our only hope will be a post-apocalyptic Direct Primary Caree model, which is just as American as the corporate model. Come to think of it, maybe even more so…

Don’t Ask Me to Work for the Other Side

As a physician with a strong sense of calling, I always see myself working for each patient, regardless of who pays the bill. Following in the footsteps of role models like Hippocrates and Osler, how could I do anything else?

Ted Ross has been my patient for decades. He can’t seem to lose weight.

John Jackson has admitted he doesn’t know how long he can keep doing the kind of work that has supported his family until now.

Ted is a long distance truck driver. He needs a DOT physical. Because of the new requirements, he will probably need a sleep study to rule out sleep apnea. If he fails, he could lose his job, because we all want to feel safe on our highways.

John came in with back pain the other day. As I filled out the Workers Comp M-1 form, he sighed “this may be it for me”.

John told me his back started hurting when he lifted a washing machine at work. As long as his employer’s Workers Comp carrier doesn’t challenge the claim, he’s covered for medical costs, rehabilitation and disability income, possibly even for life. If it had happened at home, on his own time, he would not be entitled to anywhere near the same benefits.

Medicine is a very personal business. A trusted provider hears more than a stranger and his or her words have more impact. Our patients assume we are there to help them. But sometimes we are put in a position of working for someone else, against our own patients.

In Ted’s case, I won’t be the one to tell him that his job is on the line because of his obesity. When the new requirements and certifications for performing physicals for the Department of Transportation went into effect, I simply didn’t pursue them.

In John’s case, as the treating physician, I have to file regular reports with his employer’s insurance company, and every test or referral I want to make has to be approved by them. If I keep him out of work longer than they expect or prescribe more pain medication than the average situation requires, I get a call from an insurance company nurse whose job it is to bring my treatment in line with their expectations.

It is impossible to overlook the fact that his employers Comp carrier is trying to direct John’s care; they are the ones who pay me for each one of his visits.

If other life circumstances come into being while I am treating him for his back injury, I have to be very careful not to spend too much time talking about them, and I certainly can’t put any of it in his record, since every Comp visit goes to the insurance company for review. I have to constantly remind patients that a Comp visit is a legal document, to be used in what amounts to a case of litigation.

If I could help it, I wouldn’t treat Workers Compensation cases for the same reason I don’t do DOT physicals: I never want to represent an authority or institution that can be seen as the opponent of patients I need to have a therapeutic relationship with.

If John’s Comp carrier were to claim that since he went to the Cityside Hospital emergency room with low back pain after a minor car accident ten years ago, he had a preexisting back problem, his medical expenses could bankrupt him. He has a high deductible health insurance. If he can’t go back to work, he will have 26 weeks of reduced-pay short term disability benefits. After that, he’d have to apply for Social Security Disability, which could take several years.

If Ted loses his DOT certificate, how can I be effective as his personal physician with my signature on the document that cost him his career? And if he were to commit suicide, as some middle aged men who lose their jobs do, could I counsel and care for his wife and daughter?

I often think about my native Sweden in cases like these. I saw many things that frustrated me when I worked there after graduating from medical school, but they didn’t have one level of health and disability benefits for injured workers and little or no help for people who got hurt on their own time. That is a pretty arbitrary and inhumane way of stratifying health care.

If you’re hurt, you’re hurt, regardless of whose fault it is. (I’ll tell you about Sweden’s no-fault medical malpractice payments some other time.) And if you seek help from a doctor, you expect the doctor to be working with your best interest in mind. And if the society you live in doesn’t take good care of people who are sick or injured, you may have trouble accepting that your doctor is putting the good of “society” or “the system” before your most urgent needs to put food on your family’s table.

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