I’m happier doing patient messages these days. That’s because of a little feature that we turned on in EPIC, our electronic medical record. The change doesn’t make me any faster or smarter. It doesn’t make me any more money. It merely adds a sprinkle of meaning to the work I do, and that has made all the difference.
In contrast to the usually glamorous portrayal of physicians’ work, most of our days are mundane. On a typical clinic day I’ll get up to a dozen requests from patients asking for something. Usually it’s just a refill, but several are from patients asking for a earlier appointment, when there are none. Or asking for a stronger treatment, when there aren’t any. Most of these requests are from patients who do not have interesting diagnoses or require sophisticated treatments. They are the itchy, and they remain itchy despite my advice. After a long day of seeing patients, the long list of messages that requires action feels endless, burdensome. Optimizing extenders has made me more efficient, but the work that remains isn’t fulfilling. A subtle change in our EMR has helped, though.
What is different? Our EPIC now includes a photo of each patient. That’s it. Ostensibly, having a photo is a security feature: it allows us to positively identify a patient, thereby reducing the risk that we treat an imposter posing as that patient (a small but real problem with drug seekers).
Why might this matter for physician satisfaction? Because seeing a patient photo brings an actual person to the top of mind. This changes our emotional connection to the work: how we interpret work is all that matters when it comes to job satisfaction. This is why volunteer work is so rewarding, despite having no monetary incentive, and why highly compensated professions, like those of many Wall Street traders, can ultimately fail to be fulfilling.
Tonight, long after the sun has set, I’m still working through messages. The next one, however, is not from any patient with nummular eczema. I see it’s from Mrs. Morales (not her real name), a sweet older woman with a warm smile and rich accent. She teaches water aerobics and she spent 5 minutes describing a typical Puerto Rican dinner (lots of stews) during her last appointment with me. Seeing her smiling face in the top left corner of the chart reminds me that the work I’m doing is for someone I know, someone I care for.
Radiologists have actually studied this phenomenon. Like much of medicine, radiology can be tedious. Researchers devised a simple test to see if making radiology work more human could improve not only the experience for, but also the effectiveness of, doctors. With patients’ consent, they took photos of 300 participants before their films were sent for reading. Radiologists who saw a patient’s photo along with their radiographic studies reported feeling more empathy for their patients. They also reported reading cases with photos more meticulously than those cases without photos. But that’s not all. When the radiologists were later shown the same films but without the patient photos, the doctors were less likely to notice incidental findings in the radiographs. The authors concluded that seeing patient photos made radiologists both more effective and more empathic (ScienceDaily 2008 Dec 14).
So consider adding photos of your patients to your EMR. Then remember to take a second or two to look at them before engaging in the task to be done. You, and your patients, will be better off because of it.
Dr. Benabio is a partner physician in the department of dermatology of the Southern California Permanente Group in San Diego, and a volunteer clinical assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego. He is @dermdoc on Twitter. He has no conflicts related to the topic of this column.