Med Tech Report

Electronic health records and the lost power of prose


 

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” Anton Chekhov

In March 2006, four programmers turned entrepreneurs launched Twitter. This revolutionary tool experienced a monumental growth in scale over the next 10 years from a handful of users sharing a few thousand messages (known as “tweets”) each day to a global social network of over 300 million users valued at over $25 billion dollars. In fact, on Election Day 2016, Twitter was the No. 1 source of breaking news1, and it has been used as a launchpad for everything from social activism to national revolutions.

Dr. Chris Notte and Dr. Neil Skolnik of Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health

Dr. Chris Notte and Dr. Neil Skolnik

When Twitter was first conceived, it was designed to operate through wireless phone carriers’ SMS messaging functionality (aka “via text message”). SMS messages are limited to just 160 characters, so Twitter’s creators decided to restrict tweets to 140 characters, allowing 20 characters for a username. This decision created a necessity for communication efficiency that harks back to the days of the telegraph. From the liberal use of contractions and abbreviations to the tireless search for the shortest synonyms possible, Twitter users have employed countless techniques to enable them to say more with less. While clever and creative, this extreme verbal austerity has pervaded other media as well, becoming the hallmark literary style of the current generation.

Contemporaneous with the Twitter revolution, the medical field has allowed technology to dramatically change its style of communication as well, but in the opposite way. We have become far less efficient in our use of words, yet we seem to be doing a really poor job of expressing ourselves.

Saying less with more

I was once asked to provide expert testimony in a medical malpractice lawsuit. Working in support of the defense, I endured question after question from the plaintiff’s legal team as they picked apart every aspect of the case. Of particular interest was the physician’s documentation. Sadly – yet perhaps unsurprisingly – it was poor. The defendant had clearly used an EHR template and clicked checkboxes to create his note, documenting history, physical exam, assessment, and plan without having typed a single word. While adequate for billing purposes, the note was missing any narrative that could communicate the story of what had transpired during the patient’s visit. Sure, the presenting symptoms and vital signs were there, but the no description of the patient’s appearance had been recorded? What had the physician been thinking? What unspoken messages had led the physician to make the decisions he had made?

Like Twitter, the dawn of EHRs created an entirely new form of communication, but instead of limiting the content of physicians’ notes it expanded it. Objectively, this has made for more complete notes. Subjectively, this has led to notes packed with data, yet devoid of meaningful narrative. While handwritten notes from the previous generation were brief, they included the most important elements of the patient’s history and often the physician’s thought process in forming the differential. The electronically generated notes of today are quite the opposite; they are dense, yet far from illuminating. A clinician referring back to the record might have tremendous difficulty discerning salient features amidst all of the “note bloat.”This puts the patient (and the provider, as in the case above) at risk. Details may be present, but the diagnosis will be missed without the story that ties them all together.

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