EHR Report

EHR Report: Don’t let the electronic health record do the driving


The secret to the care of the patient ... is in caring for the patient.

-Francis W. Peabody, MD1

Last month I received a call from a man who was upset about the way he was treated in our office. He had presented with depression and felt insulted by one of our resident physicians in the way he had interacted with him during his visit. I offered to see him the next day.

When I walked into the exam room, I noticed that his eyes were bloodshot and he was fidgeting in his chair. He explained that it was difficult for him to address this issue, but he had been taken aback at his previous visit to our office when the doctor who saw him, after introducing himself, proceeded to sit down, open his computer, and start typing. The patient went on to describe that the physician – while staring at his computer screen – first acknowledged that he was being seen for depression and then immediately asked him if he had any plans to commit suicide. He did not have any suicidal plans, but he felt strongly that being asked about suicide as the first question in the doctor’s interview missed the point of his visit. He was having trouble concentrating, he felt down, and he was having difficulty sleeping at night, all contributing to trouble both at work and in his personal life. Suicide was not a concern of his. He shook his head. He said he understood that we, as doctors, had to put information into the computer, but he also felt that the doctor’s main goal during that visit appeared to be to get through the forms on the computer rather than taking care of him. He admonished that physicians also need to remember that there is a patient in the room and that we should pay attention to the patient first. The computer should be second. I couldn’t have said it better myself. I told him that I would look into what happened, and then we continued with his visit.

Dr. Chris Notte and Dr. Neil Skolnik

Later that day, I got in touch with the resident physician who had seen the patient. He is an excellent, caring doctor, and truly felt bad hearing about the patient’s experience the day before. The resident explained that they had been taught during orientation that all patients with a diagnosis of depression needed to be screened for suicide. This certainly makes sense for patients who are presenting with a new or active diagnosis (and whether this makes sense for patients with stable depression on their problem list on maintenance therapy is not the subject of this column). What is interesting and important for our topic today is that the only way to we get “credit” for having screened for suicide in patients who have a diagnosis of depression is to fill out the suicide screen. This happens to exist in the EHR as a form that one must click on at the top of the History of Present Illness. In an effort to be responsible and fulfill the expectations communicated by the institution, the resident made sure that the form was filled out for this patient.

You can already see where this discussion is going. The odd thing about the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA), Medicare’s quality payment program, is that, unless we are careful, the result of the program may be the opposite of what it’s intended to accomplish. By leading to an over-focus on documentation of the quality of care, we are at risk of diminishing the quality of care itself. In essence, many of the requirements appear to simply be more advanced versions of the meaningful (meaningless?) use provisions with which we have previously grappled. It is clear that we should assess the quality of care that is given and that physician payment should be influenced by that care. It is also clear that the only reasonable way to measure the care provided is by collecting data from the EHR. The problem is that the sophistication of the EHR has not caught up to the sophistication of our goals.

Our challenge as physicians who care for patients therefore occurs at an individual level for each of us. How do we provide the necessary documentation scattered throughout our digital charts to satisfy reporting requirements, yet still meet the very real needs of patients to have their voices heard and their emotions acknowledged? The Physician Charter by the American Board of Internal Medicine discusses “the primacy of patient welfare” as a core tenant of medical practice. It goes on to state that “administrative exigencies must not compromise this principle.”2 Given competing demands, how do we continue to accomplish these goals which are often in conflict with one another?

We cannot provide an answer to this question because unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – the answer does not come in the form of a clear algorithm of behaviors or a form that we can click on. However that does not mean that it cannot be done. Simply being mindful of how important personal interaction is to our patients will help us stay focused on patient needs. In fact, one of the most exciting aspects of our digital age (and our use of EHRs) is that the need to actually connect with people is more important than ever, and prioritizing this stands to reward those individuals who continue to pay attention to patients. In a future column, we will discuss suggestions and strategies for integrating the EHR into truly patient-centered care. In the early 1920s, Dr. Francis W. Peabody said, “The treatment of a disease may be entirely impersonal: the care of the patient must be completely personal.”1 Medical competency is essential and documentation is required, but neither alone is sufficient for the care of patients.

Dr. Skolnik is professor of family and community medicine at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, and associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health. Dr. Notte is a family physician and clinical informaticist for Abington Memorial Hospital. He is also a partner in EHR Practice Consultants, a firm that aids physicians in adopting electronic health records.


1. Peabody FW. The care of the patient. JAMA. 1927;88:877-82.

2. The Physician Charter. American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation at

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