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Medical Errors Reduced By 30% When Doctors Required To Speak To One Another At Shift Change

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I have spent many blog hours bemoaning the inadequate communication going on in hospitals today. Thanks to authors of a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, I have more objective data for my ranting. A prospective intervention study conducted at 9 academic children’s hospitals (and involving 10,740 patients over 18 months) revealed that requiring resident physicians to adopt a formal “hand off” process at shift change resulted in a 30% reduction of medical errors.

What was the intervention exactly? Details are available via mail order from the folks at Boston Children’s Hospital. It may take me a few weeks to get my hands on the curriculum (which was supported by a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services). I’m not sure how complex the new handoff initiative is in practice (or if it’s something that could be replicated without government-approved formality) but one thing is certain: disciplined physician communication saves lives.

I myself (without a grant from HHS or a NEJM study to back my assertions – ahem) proposed a set of comprehensive communication practices that can help to reduce medical errors in the hospital. My list involves more than peer hand-offs, but also nursing communication, EMR documentation strategies, and reliance on pharmacists for medication reconciliation and review. It is more than just an information exchange protocol for shift-changes, it is a lifestyle choice.

I applaud the I-PASS Handoff Study for its rigorous, evidence-based approach to implementing communication interventions among pediatric residents in children’s hospitals. I am stunned by how effective this one intervention has been – but a part of me is saddened that we practically had to mandate the obvious before it got done. What will it take for physicians to adopt safer communications strategies for inpatient care? I’m guessing that for many of us, it will involve enrollment in a workshop with hospital administration-driven requirements for participation.

For others of us – regular communication with staff, patients, and peers already defines our medical practice. But because (apparently?) we are not in the majority, we’ll just carry on our instinctual carefulness and wait for the rest to catch up. At least now we know that there is a path forward regarding improving communication skills and transfer of patient information. If we have to force doctors to look up from their iPhones and sit around a table and speak to one another – then so be it. The process may improve our lives while it saves those of our patients.

Hospital Pharmacists: Protecting Patients From Electronic Medical Record Errors May Be Their Most Important New Role

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Most hospitalized patients and families don’t realize that life-threatening medication errors are regularly thwarted by pharmacists. They are truly the unsung heroes of patient care. I just finished a locum tenens assignment at a hospital that uses EPIC as their electronic medical records system, and I was stunned by the impossibly complex medication reconciliation process. Each time a patient is admitted to the hospital, or transferred to another part of the hospital, a physician must review, approve, and re-order their medications. While this may seem like a good way to insure that medication errors are avoided, it actually has the exact opposite effect.

Because EPIC keeps lists of home meds, discontinued meds, and current meds available for review and reactivation, it takes little more than one misplaced check box to order the wrong dose or type of medication. Physicians who transfer a patient to another service can indicate their intended medication list and keep it “on hold” for the receiving physician to review and approve. Unfortunately, the software’s tab system is so complex that it’s extremely difficult to find that list and activate it. Lost in a sea of admissions tasks and order boxes in different fonts, colors, and drop down menus, one often accidentally reviews and approves discontinued types and doses of medicines. The only protection against such errors is the hospital pharmacist.

With each new admission to the inpatient rehabilitation unit, I had to resort to calling a pharmacist for help. I was terrified that I would accidentally insert medication errors into the patient’s order set by carrying forward discontinued meds. The long-suffering pharmacists explained to me that “most physicians make medication order errors in EPIC with each admission.” They said that they regularly had to talk physicians out of throwing their computer out the window in a state of extreme frustration. They also said that their EPIC user environment looked very different (and less confusing) than what the physicians used, so that they couldn’t even provide real-time phone guidance regarding order entry process.

The scary thing is that EPIC has the largest market share of any EMR in the United States. It is also (in my experience) the most prone to medical errors due to its overly complex medication reconciliation process. I have used other EMRs that have far simpler and more intelligent medication order entry processes. Soarian (Sieman’s EMR, just sold to Cerner) has, for example, an outstanding order entry system. So my complaint is not that “all EMRs are bad” – it’s that some have particularly flawed designs that are causing real harm to untold millions of patients. We just haven’t documented the harm yet. I tremble at the thought of what we’d find.

Until electronic medication reconciliation is made safer, pharmacists will be working overtime to correct records and protect patients from carry over errors. I thank my lucky stars that I have had vigilant, determined pharmacists by my side as I cared for very complex, sick patients who were exceptionally vulnerable to dosing errors. There has never been a more important time to exercise caution when entering hospital medication orders, or to express your appreciation for pharmacists. Without their help we might all be experiencing medication errors of EPIC proportions.

EMRs And The Dangers Of Digital Dependency And Drop-Down Medicine

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Electronic medical records (EMRs) now play a part in the daily documentation routine for most physicians. While improvements in access to patient data, legibility of notes, and ease of order entry are welcome enhancements, there is a significant downside to EMRs as well. Although I’ve blogged about my frustrations with nonsensical, auto-populated notes and error carry-forward, there is a more insidious problem with reliance on EMRs: digital dependency.

The idea of digital dependency first occurred to me during a conversation with a young medical resident at a hospital where we share patients. I was bemoaning the fact that I was being forced to use hospital-designed templates for admission notes, rather than a dictation system or carefully crafted note of my own choosing. She looked at me, wide-eyed and said:

“You’ve worked without templates? How do you even know where to begin? Can you really dictate an entire note off the top of your head? I couldn’t live without templates.”

As I stared back at her with an equal amount of bewilderment, I slowly realized that her thinking had been honed for drop-down menus and check boxes. Over time, she had lost the ability to construct narratives, create a cohesive case for her diagnostic impressions, and justify her patient plan of action. To this bright, highly trained mind, clinical reasoning was an exercise in multiple choice selection. Her brain had been optimized for the demands of an EMR template, and mine was a relic of the pre-EMR era. I was witnessing a fundamental cognitive shift in the way that medicine was practiced.

The problem with “drop-down medicine” is that the advantages of the human mind are muted in favor of data entry. Physicians in this model essentially provide little benefit over a computer algorithm. Intuition, clinical experience, sensory input (the smell of pseudomonas, the sound of pulmonary edema, the pulsatile mass of an aneurysm) are largely untapped.  We lose our need for team communication because “refer to my EMR note” is the way of the future. Verbal sign-outs are a thing of the past it seems, as those caring for the same patient rely on their digital documentation to serve in place of human interaction.

My advice to the next generation of physicians is to limit your dependency on digital data. Like alcohol, a little is harmless or possibly healthy, but a lot can ruin you. Leverage the convenience of the EMR but do not let it take over your brain or your patient relationships. Pay attention to what your senses tell you during your physical exam, take a careful history, listen to family members, discuss diagnostic conundrums with your peers, and always take the time for verbal sign outs. Otherwise, what advantage do you provide to patients over a computer algorithm?

Am I a curmudgeon who is bristling against forward progress, or do I have a reasonable point? Judging from the fact that my young peers copy and paste my assessment and plans into their progress notes with impressive regularity, I’d say that templatized medicine still can’t hold a candle to thoughtful prose. Even the digitally dependent know this. 🙂

Why I Still Don’t Hate Being A Doctor

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Judging from recent articles, surveys, and blog posts, the medical profession is remarkably demoralized. Typical complaints range from “feeling like a beaten dog” to “living in humiliating servitude,” to being forced to practice “treadmill medicine.” Interestingly, the public response to these complaints is largely indifferent. The prevailing attitude (if the “comments sections” of online articles and blog posts are representative) seems to be unsympathetic: “Poor doctors, making a little less income and not being treated like gods anymore? You have to do extra paperwork? You have to work long hours? Welcome to the real world, you whiners!”

But thank goodness that practicing medicine is more nuanced than the Facebook stream of hostility that we are subjected to on a daily basis. If patients spoke to me the way online comments read, I’d surely have quit medicine years ago. But my reality is that patients are generally grateful, attentive, and respectful. This could be because I work in inpatient rehabilitation medicine, a place where patients are screened for motivation to participate in their care, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. I have experience working in other settings across the country (including Emergency Departments), and I have found a significant number of good-natured, engaged patients there too.

I think that to some degree our attitudes shape our work environments. Patient and peer dispositions are in part a reflection of our own. Try approaching a frightened, sick patient with an arrogant, dismissive tone and see how your professional relationship with them (and their families) develops. There is a negative cascade that physicians can trigger (perhaps unwittingly) when they are rushed, curt, or inattentive. Beginning every new patient relationship with a caring, respectful, detailed history and physical exam lays a foundation of trust for future interactions. Once you have established that positive rapport, the daily grind (along with what my friend, Dr. Steve Simmons, has nicknamed ‘C.R.A.P.P.’ – Continuous Restrictive And Punitive Paperwork) is much more bearable.

As physicians we have the power to make our careers as meaningful or soul-sucking as we choose. Reducing the C.R.A.P.P. in our work lives can help (I’ve tried outpatient, “concierge style” practices and inpatient locum tenens assignments with good success), but that’s not the most important factor in enhancing work satisfaction. The relationships built by allying ourselves with patients, and shepherding them through this broken system, are where the rewards lie. They hold the keys to our professional fulfillment because nothing can beat the joy of helping those in need.

How do I know that patient appreciation is enough to make medicine worthwhile?

Because I still don’t hate being a doctor.

Five Things That Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) Can Learn From Social Media

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As a physician who openly despises many aspects of current EMRs (see “How An EMR Gave My Patient Syphilis” or “The Medical Chart: Ground Zero For The Deterioration Of Patient Care” ) I recognize that they are here to stay. And so, since we’re all stuck with these digital middlemen, I have some suggestions (based on popular social media platform functionality) for making them better.

1. Likes. Healthcare providers should be able to “vote up” an excellent note in the medical record. Let’s face it, not all doctors are equally good at documentation. Untold hours of our time are spent trying to cull through pages of auto-populated, drop-down-box checks to figure out what’s actually going on with a patient on a particular day. Once in a while you stumble upon some comprehensive free text that a physician took the time to type after a previous encounter, and suddenly everything becomes clear. If there were a way to flag or “like” such documents, it would help other readers orient themselves more quickly to a patient’s history. A “liking” system is desperately needed in EMRs and would be a valuable time saver, as well as encouragement to physicians who document notes well. Hospitals could reward their best note makers with public recognition or small monetary bonuses.

2. #Hashtags. Tagging systems are sorely lacking in medical records systems, which makes them very difficult to search. Patients make multiple visits for various complaints, often with numerous providers involved. If physicians had the ability to review notes/records unique to the complaint that they are addressing, it would save a lot of time. Notes could be tagged with keywords selected by the author and permanently recorded in the EMR. This would substantially improve future search efforts. Even if the EMR generated 10 search terms (based on the note) and then asked the physician to choose the 3 most relevant to the current encounter, that would be a step in the right direction.

3. Selfies. Medical records would benefit from patient-identifier photographs. In a busy day where 20-30 patients are treated and EMR notes are updated after the patients have gone home, a small patient photograph that appears on each documentation page will serve the physician well in keeping details straight. Patients should be able to upload their favorite portrait to the EMR if the standard one (perhaps taken during the intake process) is not acceptable to them. In my experience, nothing brings back physical exam and history details better than a photograph of the patient.

4. Contextual links. All EMRs should provide links to the latest medical literature (on subjects specifically related to the patient’s current diseases and conditions) in a module on the progress note page. UpToDate.com and other reference guides could easily supply the right content (perhaps based on diagnosis codes). This will help physicians practice evidence-based medicine and keep current with changes in recommended treatment practices.

5. Microblogging. Sometimes there are important “notes to self” that a physician would like to make but don’t need to be part of the official medical record. EMRs should provide a free-text module (like a digital sticky note) for such purposes. These sticky notes should not be admissible in court as part of the medical record, and should not be uploaded to the cloud. Content included in these notes could include social information (patient’s daughter just had a healthy baby girl), hunches (patient looks slightly pale today – will check H&H next time if no change), and preliminary information (remember to review radiology result before calling patient next Tues).

It is my hope that EMRs will slowly adopt some best practices from top social media platforms. After all, if millions of users are effectively using voting, tagging, linking, searching and imaging in their daily online lives, it only makes sense to capitalize on these behaviors within the constraints of the medical environment. Maintaining strict confidentiality and appropriate professional boundaries (often missing in the social media world at large) is certainly possible with EMRs. Let’s build a better information capture and retrieval process for the sake of our patients, and our sanity.

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At least one EMR is already providing #3 and #5 as part of its software: see MDHQ.com Are you aware of any others already implementing these ideas?

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