The accumulated wisdom, research data, and opinions regarding the use of electronic health records (EHRs) are vast. A quick Internet search turns up many informative articles on their positive and negative effects. But I haven’t found many that explicitly review the unanticipated effects EHRs have on who does what in the hospital.
For example, when reports such as admission and discharge notes are done via recorded dictation and transcription, the author would typically dictate where copies of the report should be sent (“copy to Dr. Matheny”) and rely on others to ensure it reached its intended destination. In many hospitals, such reports are now typed directly into the EHR, often using speech recognition software, and it is up to the author to click several buttons to ensure that it is routed to the intended recipients. So now a clerical function, sending reports, is handled by providers. This can be a good thing—reduced clerical staffing costs, faster transmission of reports—but often means that there is no documentation within the report itself of whom it was sent to (i.e., no list of “cc’s”). It also means that when the recipient isn’t easy to find, the report author is likely to give up, and the report may never be sent.
Any hospitalist using an EHR could easily list dozens of similar unanticipated effects, both good and bad. The magnitude and risk of these are difficult to quantify.
Altered Referral Patterns, Division of Labor
A hospitalist-specific side effect of EHR adoption is that they tend to cause many other doctors to resist serving as attending physician, instead asking hospitalists to replace them in that role. Even without EHRs, shifting attending responsibility to hospitalists has been a trend at nearly every hospital for years, but it can be accelerated dramatically at the time of a “go live.” So, in addition to the stress of adapting to the new EHR, hospitalists typically face higher than usual patient volumes resulting from increased referrals from other doctors.
If you’re a hospitalist facing an upcoming “go live,” it would be worth talking to other doctors in multiple specialties regarding your capacity to handle additional work. Keep in mind the possibility of higher than typical winter 2014 patient volumes that could result from patients who are newly insured through health exchanges.
Many factors, in addition to EHRs, are moving physicians away from a willingness to serve as attending, including the complexity of managing inpatient vs. observation status, keeping up with ever-changing documentation, pay-for-performance initiatives, the stress of ED call, and so on. As I’ve written before (see my January 2011 column, “Health IT Hurdles,”), I think effective management of hospital systems is becoming as complicated as safely piloting a jumbo jet. It will be increasingly difficult for doctors in any specialty to stay proficient at “piloting” a hospital unless they do it all or most of the time. And, staying proficient at multiple hospitals simultaneously may not be feasible at some point. We’ll see.
When Do Things Get Done?
A friend of mine, Dr. John Maa, is a general surgeon who was instrumental in establishing one of the first general surgery hospitalist practices. He tells a very personal and tragic story of his mother’s death, which, he has come to believe, might have been made more likely because of the unintended effect of an EHR.