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Documenting To Death: Are EMRs Eroding The Soul Of Medicine?

Electronic medical record systems (EMRs) have become a part of the work flow for more than half of all physicians in the U.S. and incentives are in place to bring that number up to 100% as soon as possible. Some hail this as a giant leap forward for healthcare, and in theory that is true. Unfortunately, EMRs have not yet achieved their potential in practice – as I have discussed in my recent blog posts about “how an EMR gave my patient syphillis,” in the provocative “EMRs are ground zero for the deterioration of patient care,” and in my explanation of how hospital pharmacists are often the last layer of protection against medical errors of EPIC proportions.

Considering that an EMR costs the average physician up to $70,000 to implement, and hospital systems in the hundreds of millions – it’s not surprising that the main “benefit” driving their adoption is improved coding and billing for reimbursement capture. The efficiencies associated with access to digital patient medical records for all Americans is tantalizing to government agencies and for-profit insurance companies managing the bill for most healthcare. But will this collective data improve patient care and save lives, or is it mostly a financial gambit for medical middle men? At this point, it seems to be the latter.

There are, however, some true benefits of EMRs that I have experienced – and to be fair, I wanted to provide a personal list of pros and cons for us to consider. Overall however, it seems to me that EMRs are contributing to a depersonalization of medicine – and I grieve for the lost hours genuine human interaction with my patients and peers. Though the costs of EMR implementation may be recouped with aggressive billing tactics, what we’re losing is harder to define. As the old saying goes, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

Pros Of EMR Cons Of EMR
Solves illegible handwriting issue Obscures key information with redundancy
Speeds process of order entry and fulfillment Difficult to recall errors in time to stop/change
May reduce redundant testing as old results available Facilitates excessive testing due to ease of order entry
Allows cut and paste for rapid note writing Encourages plagiarism in lieu of critical thinking
Improves ease of coding and billing to increase reimbursement Allows easy upcoding and overcharging
Reminds physicians of evidence-based guidelines at point of care Takes focus from patient to computer
Improves data mining capabilities for research and quality improvement Facilitates data breaches and health information hacking
Has potential to improve information portability and inter-operability Has potential to leak personal healthcare information to employers and insurers
May reduce errors associated with human element May increase carry forward errors and computer-generated mistakes
Automated reminders keep documentation complete May increase “alert fatigue,” causing providers to ignore errors/drug interactions
Can be accessed from home Steep learning curve for optimal use
Can view radiologic studies and receive test results in one place Very expensive investment: staff training, tech support, ongoing software updates, etc.
More tests available at the click of a button Encourages reliance on tests rather than physical exam/history
Makes medicine data-centric Takes time away from face-to-face encounters
Improved coordination of care Decrease in verbal hand-offs, causing key information to be lost
Accessibility of health data to patients Potential for increased legal liability for physicians

California Hospital Investigated For Unusually High Number Of Kwashiorkor Diagnoses

Kwashiorkor in Niger

Is it plausible that one small hospital in rural Northern California treated 1,030 cases of Kwashiorkor within a two year period?

Before you answer that, let me explain what Kwashiorkor is.  It is a severe form of protein malnutrition…starving to death actually.  It is the type of starvation you see in African children.  It is so severe that the patient needs special nutritional support including special re-feeding with vitamins and it occurs mainly in children ages 1-4.   Adults can starve to death, but they do not develop classic Kwashiorkor.

Medicare pays hospitals a flat rate based on diagnosis codes for patients.  Patients with more severe coded illnesses get paid at a much higher rate.  Shasta Regional Medical Center, located in Redding, Shasta County, California is under the microscope for billing Medicare (our tax dollars at work) for 1,030 cases of Kwashiorkor to the tune of $11,463 for each diagnosis.  This medical center is Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at EverythingHealth*

Physician Organizes A Price List Of 56 Common Medical Tests

I am smacking myself on the forehead and saying, “Why didn’t I think of this?”  Dr. Richard Parker, Medical Director at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center,  has sent out a list to his physician colleagues of 56 common medical tests and procedures.  What is revolutionary is that there are prices next to each item.  You non-physicians may be surprised to know that we doctors have no idea what the tests or drugs we order actually cost.  Unless we get billed as a patient, we are as clueless as you are.

As I wrote before, the ostrich excuse just won’t fly any more.  We all need to be aware of the cost of care and have skin in the game.  Some will argue that price can’t be the only driver.  I’ve heard physicians say you can’t compare one price to another because “quality” costs more.  I say prove it. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at EverythingHealth*

Do Physicians Prefer Ventilated And Sedated Patients?

You ever wonder what doctors really think but are afraid to say out loud?  Here’s one example:

“I wish all my patients were on a ventilator”

There’s a reason vented and sedated patients are considered desirable.  In addition to the obvious economic benefits of

There are the less talked about, but equally pleasant side effects most hospitalists, ER doctors, cardiologists, gastroenterologists, pulmonologists,  surgeons, infectious disease doctors, endocrinologists, psychiatrists, rheumatologists, dermatologists, nurses, respiratory therapists and physical therapists wouldn’t admit, but would agree, without hesitation.  As a general rule:

  • Patients on ventilators are just faster, easier and more pleasant to take care of. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at The Happy Hospitalist*

A Health Insurance Coding Error Exasperates Patient

I believe this is what's holding them back from making progress with our bills.Yesterday, the mail arrived.  There were catalogs for clothes (mmmm, can’t wait until May!), letters from friends, the crappy bills that keep arriving even though we didn’t forward them to our new address, and oh yeah, that one bill from my mail order pharmacy.

For a thousand dollars.

Dated January 30, 2009.

So, being the rational and patient woman that I always am, I ripped up the envelope it came in, cursing under my breath like my temperamental buddy, Yosemite Sam.  Punctuated each tear of the paper with “fricka-frakin’ insurance bill dagnabit …”

And then I called the mail order pharmacy company.

“Thank you for calling Byram Health Care.  Your call is important to us.” Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Six Until Me.*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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