I rent cars regularly, and only occasionally do I get the same model twice. I’m ready to roll after spending a couple of minutes becoming familiar with a car that is new to me. I adjust the seat and climate control, etc. I resist fiddling with the radio until later. This seems OK to me.
The last time I started clinical practice in a new hospital, I did almost the same thing: I jumped right in and started seeing patients. Other than being provided with my password to the computer system and a dictation code, I had no orientation at all, not even to the hospital floor plan. This, too, seemed reasonable to me at the time. Now I see it differently.
Levels of Complexity
Years ago, learning a new hospital might not have been a lot more difficult than familiarizing yourself with a new rental car, so there didn’t seem to be much need for a detailed orientation. I’m generalizing here, but if you go back far enough in time, the general idea was that it was almost entirely up to the hospital and its staff to get to know the new doctor and how he or she practiced, rather than the doctor adapting to the hospital’s way of doing things.
While at one time hospitals and their systems might have been as similar to one another as a four-door Chevy is to a four-door Ford, today’s hospitals are far more complex. The appropriate transportation analogy might be one type of airplane to another.
The basics of what keeps a two-seat Cessna and a huge 747 flying are the same, but there are so many critical differences that specific training and certification are required for each. Even an accomplished professional pilot who is an ace in a 747 isn’t automatically certified to pilot a smaller 737. In fact, few professional pilots are certified to fly more than one type of commercial airplane at a time. One way to look at this is that the orientation to the plane is so complex that one person can’t be expected to maintain a high level of familiarity with the systems and operation of more than one at a time.
EHR: A Tipping Point
The complexity and unique attributes of hospitals have been increasing steadily for decades, but it seems to me that electronic health records (EHR) represent a huge increase in complexity. No longer can a doctor simply arrive at the hospital confident in her ability to fly this new plane. She will require a reasonably detailed introduction to the hospital’s EHR as part of an orientation that should ideally take place prior to seeing patients.
I worry that it will be increasingly difficult, and potentially unwise, for a doctor in any specialty to practice at more than one or two hospitals that don’t share the same EHR. If a doctor is not proficient in the use of the EHR at a particular site, two things are likely to happen: First, and most alarmingly, the new doctor would probably unintentionally miss important information in the EHR, or might not have time to contemplate the series of buttons to click to check all potentially relevant information. For example, he might not realize the patient already had a series of blood tests, because accessing them requires some unfamiliar clicks of the mouse.