Practice Economics

Health IT Hurdles


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.

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 electronic health record system.

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.

The other thing that might happen if a doctor is not proficient in the use of the hospital’s EHR is that he might be inclined to consult the hospitalist “just to cover all the bases.” In this case, that might be the same as asking the hospitalist to be involved as an EHR expert, rather than for medical expertise that the patient needs.

I practice at a hospital that recently installed a new information system, and some doctors have joked that if they can’t figure out how to use it, they will just consult a hospitalist to look up historical data, etc. I’m not aware of any study looking at this issue, but I suspect “soft” hospitalist consults increase when a hospital installs a new information system.

Rethink New Employee Orientation

I’m convinced that new doctors in all specialties that anticipate having a hospital patient volume above a predetermined threshold should be required to have a formal orientation to the hospital, especially for its information system. This is really important for hospitalists. Every practice should think carefully about a meaningful process of orientation to the hospital and the hospitalist practice itself. The latter would include things like scheduling issues, training in CPT coding, group governance and culture, etc.

My experience is that multistate hospitalist companies have pretty detailed orientation programs; for one thing, they can use this as a differentiator when marketing their services. But private hospitalist practices and groups employed by a single hospital usually have a pretty loose orientation process. It is tricky to find the sweet spot between valuable orientation activities and so much detail that the new doctor is overwhelmed or bored, and unlikely to remember much of what is presented.

And there certainly is a role for waiting to learn some things as the new doctor begins seeing patients. For example, my feeling is that a general orientation to the floor plan is sufficient and the new hire can best learn the details independently during the course of patient care. However, all hospitalists should have some reasonable level of proficiency in the EHR before seeing their first patients.


If you accept my premise that hospitals were once reasonably similar, like one rental car to another, but have now become as complex and different as jumbo jets, then we’re led to another question: Will we one day decide that a doctor must be certified to practice in a particular hospital by demonstrating knowledge and competence in that particular hospital’s systems and procedures?

Nearly all present-day credentialing and privileging related to a doctor’s work in a hospital focus on that doctor’s prior training and experience. In the case of pilots, there is a requirement to demonstrate proficiency when making a transition to a new airplane.

Maybe an analogous system of certification for a doctor to “fly” each hospital would be valuable for our patients. If training might not make sense for all doctors, then perhaps limit it to those, such as hospitalists, who will have a really high patient volume at the facility.

It would be dizzyingly complex to create and referee such a certification system, so I’m not sure anything like this will happen in my career. And the last thing I want is another set of bureaucratic hurdles.

But it might be worth thinking about how to ensure doctors at a particular hospital are expert enough in that hospital’s unique systems and operations. Start with your group’s orientation process. TH

Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988 and is cofounder and past president of SHM. He is a principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants, a national hospitalist practice management consulting firm ( He is also course co-director and faculty for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program” course. This column represents his views and is not intended to reflect an official position of SHM.

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