She was a healthy 69-year-old who developed new onset atrial fibrillation and went to “one of the most highly regarded academic medical centers on the West Coast,” albeit not a facility where John was practicing. She was admitted with orders for anticoagulation but spent her first night on a stretcher in the ED because no inpatient bed was available. She went to a hospital room the next day, but her late arrival there delayed the planned transesophageal echo and cardioversion by another day.
Tragically, before the cardioversion could be done, she had a very large embolic stroke that led to brain herniation. A short time later, John and his father made the wrenching decision to discontinue mechanical ventilation. She died 112 hours after walking into the hospital.
What John later learned is that the admission orders written while she was in the ED were put into “sign and hold” status in the hospital’s EHR. Her caregivers had not anticipated a significant delay in moving her to an inpatient bed, and for the 18 or so hours she spent boarding in the ED, her admission orders were not acted on, and anticoagulation was delayed many hours. She might have had the same outcome even if anticoagulation had been started promptly, but it would have been much less likely.
John believes that the “sign and hold” status of the admission orders was a major contributor to the treatment delay. It increased the risk that the ED caregivers never acted on those orders, and may not have even seen them, since the EHR essentially holds them for presentation to the receiving inpatient unit.
John only recognized this vulnerability three years after his mother’s passing, when he underwent the physician training for the same EHR system. The course teachers agreed that this problem could arise if a patient was boarded in the ED for a prolonged period but felt that the responsibility rested with hospital administrators to minimize overcrowding in the ED. John also raised the issue with hospital leadership, who shared his concern but believed that a software remedy should be the solution. Ultimately, the answer may come from medical hospitalists, who recognize that every day and night, patients across America are at risk for a repeat of the incident John’s family suffered nearly five years ago.
In a very well written and moving essay, John describes his mother’s care.1 Though he doesn’t specifically mention the likely contribution of the “sign and hold” orders, it is one more example of EHR-related confusion that can arise around who does what and when they should do it. Clearly, the same sort of confusion exists in a non-EHR hospital, but it is the EHR-related change in the previous way of doing things that likely increases risk.
It can be very difficult—even impossible—to see all of these issues in advance. Even when acknowledged, the challenges can be difficult to address. But the first step is to recognize a problem, or potential problem, and think carefully about how it should be addressed.
Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988. He is co-founder and past president of SHM, and principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants. He is co-director for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program” course. Write to him at [email protected].