As promised, it’s a time-saver. The problem is that this new technology harbors insidious flaws that prey on the frailties of human nature by introducing new portals for error. For example, the report makes it simple to not reconcile medications daily. The time-honored and time-intensive manner of writing all the meds on a progress note is indeed cumbersome, but it has the added effect of forcing the provider to think about each medication—the utility, the dosage, the effects of the failing kidney on the dosage. Automation of this process removes this small but critical safety check. Sure, diligent providers can overcome this by paying close attention to the printout, but human nature dictates that we don’t always do it. In fact, we employed automation to save this type of time in the first place.
The rounds report also helpfully displays the vital signs and blood sugars for the past 24 hours, reducing the time the harried hospitalist has to spend looking these up and writing them down. However, the report doesn’t print out every vital sign and blood-sugar level; it provides a range. Again, it is possible to access these individual levels, but the post-EHR provider, lured by simplification, often doesn’t take the extra step to go to the separate program to gather these numbers. This shortcut enhances efficiency at the expense of having complete data, a scenario that can breed bad outcomes.
More Efficient Doesn’t Mean Better
Then there is the catch-22 of electronic imaging reports. It is impressive how quickly a chest X-ray gets read and reported electronically in my hospital. The downside, of course, is that today’s techno-doc can rely on the written report without reviewing the actual image. We’ve again, in not reviewing the films personally, removed an important safety check.
The point is that while mechanization offers great potential, it is easy to overlook the downside. Many physicians are not as tech-savvy as their kids and likely will struggle with these newfangled devices. For them, this will not simplify their workflow, but rather it will bog them down. These gizmos also are extremely expensive, and many small clinics and rural hospitals will struggle to afford these upgrades, even with taxpayer support. And let’s not overlook the myriad unforeseen hiccups these new systems will breed.
None of this is to say we shouldn’t embrace our “Jetsons”-like future. In fact, I’d counter that we must, and now is the opportune time. Still, I get nervous when I read stories of the endless EHR potential that omit or gloss over the probable limitations. The key will be to adopt these systems in ways that augment their strengths while mitigating their weaknesses. This must include achieving the delicate balance of usability, efficiency, and safety.
Otherwise, we might find that the technological apple will keep the doctors away. TH
Dr. Glasheen is associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Denver, where he serves as director of the Hospital Medicine Program and the Hospitalist Training Program, and as associate program director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program.