Monday, February 27, 2017

End? of paper

There are two things that,  if in 1983, you had told me I would still be doing in 2017, I would have called you crazy.

The first is billing fee for service.

The second is charting on paper.

The end may be in sight however.  Last Friday's pain clinic at my main hospital site was the last before the electronic medical record rolls out.  Fortunately I only work alternate weeks so my hope is that all the bugs will be sorted out next week.  There is a huge team of people involved in setting this up.  I attended a meeting with about 10 of them in a large war-room with white boards all over the wall.  I wonder if the money spent on this might be better spent elsewhere.

I work at a variety of sites and so have been exposed to 4 different EMRs all of which are entirely different from each other.  Fortunately the EMR I will be using in a week or so is one I already use at another hospital, which means that I already took the mandatory training and did all the privacy and security stuff.  The IT people who are supervising the whole process keep on referring to me as a star.  I also get invited to "physician champion" meetings which I never attend.  Sorry, guys I already know the system and I am the only person in my department.

It is interesting how the logistics of a paperless system affect your practice.  For the first few months we have been advised to book fewer patients as charting can be expected to take longer.  The other issue is that we are nowhere near the end of paper.  At one place I work which has an EMR,  a parallel paper chart is kept, at another they insist on printing out my most recent note for me to read every visit.  I keep on telling them that I can read the electronic chart but they insist on it.  In addition because none of the 4 EMRs can communicate, if you want records from one practice the only recourse is to print out the record and send it where it is scanned into the other record.  All lab and imaging reports are now available on the provincial electronic record but they still insist upon sending me paper copies as well.

Canada has a socialized medical system which means it should have been easy to set up a universal electronic medical record.  For example if I see a patient with headaches, I should be able to pull up the neurologist's consult.  If however I want a copy, it will most likely be a paper copy mailed or faxed to me, often not available when I am seeing the patient.  Larger HMOs in the US have a single medical record, as do  the doctors in one small Canadian province.

As I blogged a few years ago, we had an issue where multiple miscommunications lead to a patient's testicular cancer diagnosis and treatment being delayed and the patient ultimately dying.  This lead to a lot of hand-wringing and promises to fix the system.  Much of this could have been solved by an integrated EMR which nobody including me, seemed to have the balls to suggest.  Our medical society is trying to set up a secure electronic portal where doctors can communicate with each other confidentially (except for the NSA and the Russians of course).  The problem is of course that such a system is of no use unless there is close to 100% buy in and I don't see that happening because for most doctors miscommunications are someone else's problem.  I have never really seen the problem with just using email.  Is it any less secure that faxing.  How often have you found someone else's fax stapled to one of your faxes.  Anyway I have a personal fax which emails me a PDF.  When someone tells me they can't email me something because of confidentiality issues, I tell them "Just fax it to me".  They do and the faxed gets emailed to me.  I don't point out the contradiction.

Our province has a flawed but wonderful system called NetCare where it is possible to access just about all the blood work and X-rays going back 15 years.   In addition you can get every medication dispensed to the patient.  As well anything that is dictated in a hospital system is accessible.  I can't imagine how I lived without it.  However you still cannot access anything done in a private office and in addition there are quite a few physicians who handwrite their consults and admission histories.  Progress notes which are still handwritten are not available either.  Still way better than the old days when the patient would come in saying he was taking a blue and a green pill and wanted to discuss his MRI results which you didn't have.  NetCare is easy to get on in the hospital, less so outside of the hospital where you need a key fob and a lot of good luck to get on.  (I can access my own chart on NetCare, I'm not supposed to but I do, it is after all my medical information.  My family doctor was horrified when I told him this and set me up with a patient portal where I can access my records, legally but why should I have to memorize another set of log-ins).

Mostly where I have been using EMRs have been low volume practices and I am looking with some horror at my hospital clinic tomorrow where I typically see 24 or so patients.  The EMR people assure me that they will be on site and I have done the appropriate training and have set up the appropriate shortcuts that will make charting easier for me.

I have heard that EMRs have lead to dissatisfaction in doctors that have them, although doctors have a lot of reasons to be dissatisfied and in the 30 or so years I have been in practice I have never seen any doctor completely satisfied with all the aspects of his/her practice.  EMRs certainly are cumbersome, usually requiring multiple log-ins, and their tendency to randomly shutdown or kick you out of the system.  The EMR I am using today refused to let me write prescriptions under my  name, I got around this by printing the prescription under someone else's name and then crossing it out on the paper copy.  I have been assured this will be fixed today.  You do have to remember that paper charts were not the greatest either, trying to decipher your handwriting or looking for labwork that may or may not have been filed were definitely hassles not to mention the effect on patient care.

I have recently been doing a lot of medicolegals which mean a lot of chart reviews.  These have given me to opportunity to compare both paper and electronic charts.  Paper copies of electronic charts have of course the advantage of being legible.  The quality of the information is not better and potentially a little worse as I suspect a lot of doctors are typing with two fingers.  Most EMRs have shortcuts or macros available and I notice that these are being used quite a bit.  For example many family doctors have a macro for their yearly physical exam (notwithstanding the fact that nobody advocates a yearly physical, most patients seem to get one done, if only because the doctor can bill for it).  I have for example reviewed cases with severe neck or back pain, well documented in the progress notes who when they present for their yearly physical will have a completely normal exam documented on the obviously computer generated record.  This is I am sure going to cause problems when somebody less understanding than me reviews the chart.  I have also heard of instances in hospitals where people are cutting and pasting other people's consults or progress notes.  This is of course okay (if a little lazy) if the original information that was cut and pasted was valid, however the old saying garbage in/garbage out comes to mind.  False information, (alternate facts) of course persisted under paper charting as well.

The other issue I notice when I review medico-legal charts is the incredible volume of paper they can generate especially if the patient is admitted to hospital.  For example, at the hospitals in another city which has EMRs, each lab test is printed out on a separate piece of paper, likewise nurses notes.  This results in a huge chart, which if I get it in paper, means lots of turning pages and a high risk of paper cuts and repetitive strain injuries.  Lawyers tend to do fishing expeditions resulting in large amounts of irrelevant information.  I get paid by the hour so I shouldn't mind but the hours available to me are finite and I know that somebody is ultimately paying for this.  Logically when they get the request the hospital would give me a time sensitive log-in to their system for that one patient's chart so I can review on a computer.  It is after all the 21st century.

Fortunately or unfortunately an EMR for anaesthesia or AIMS as they like to call it seems to be years away.  We did spend a great deal of time getting ready for one about 5 years ago with multiple meetings however suddenly without even a whimper the whole process just ground to a halt. I don't see any sign of it restarting and I don't expect to be using it before I retire.

When people express fear or dissatisfaction about EMRs, I remember a story a specialist told me when I was a resident in Newfoundland.  He had started his career working in a remote community as a general practitioner in the 1960s.  When he arrived, he found that the clinic there did not keep any patient records.  He was appalled and told the staff that they would have to start keeping charts on patients, with the result that the entire staff resigned in protest.

Like all changes in healthcare, we will survive this and patient care might even be improved.

No comments: