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The Unfortunate Therapeutic Myopia of the EMR

January 19, 2012

There’s a lot you can say about an electronic medical record (EMR).  Some of it is good: it’s more legible than a written chart, it facilitates billing, and it’s (usually) readily accessible.  On the other hand, EMRs are often cumbersome and confusing, they encourage “checklist”-style medicine, and they contain a lot of useless or duplicate information.  But a recent experience in my child/adolescent clinic opened my eyes to where an EMR might really mislead us.

David, a 9 year-old elementary school student, has been coming to the clinic every month for the last three years.  He carries a diagnosis of “bipolar disorder,” manifested primarily as extreme shifts in mood, easy irritability, insomnia, and trouble controlling his temper, both in the classroom and at home.  Previous doctors had diagnosed “oppositional defiant disorder,” then ADHD, then bipolar.  He had had a trial of psychostimulants with no effect, as well as some brief behavioral therapy.  Somewhere along the way, a combination of clonidine and Risperdal was started, and those have been David’s meds for the last year.

The information in the above paragraph came from my single interaction with David and his mom.  It was the first time I had seen David; he was added to my schedule at the last minute because the doctor he had been seeing for the last four months—a locum tenens doc—was unavailable.

Shortly before the visit, I had opened David’s EMR record to review his case, but it was not very informative.  Our EMR only allows one note to be open at a time, and I saw the same thing—”bipolar, stable, continue current meds”—and some other text, apparently cut & pasted, in each of his last 3-4 notes.  This was no big surprise; EMRs are full of cut & pasted material, plus lots of other boilerplate stuff that is necessary for legal & billing purposes but can easily be ignored.  The take-home message, at the time, was that David had been fairly stable for at least the last few months and probably just needed a refill.

During the appointment, I took note that David was a very pleasant child, agreeable and polite.  Mom said he had been “doing well.”  But I also noticed that, throughout the interview, David’s mom was behaving strangely—her head bobbed rhythmically side to side, and her arms moved in a writhing motion.  She spoke tangentially and demonstrated some acute (and extreme) shifts in emotion, at one point even crying suddenly, with no obvious trigger.

I asked questions about their home environment, David’s access to drugs and alcohol, etc., and I learned that mom used Vicodin, Soma, and Xanax.  She admitted that they weren’t prescribed to her—she bought them from friends.  Moreover, she reported that she “had just taken a few Xanax to get out the door this morning” which, she said, “might explain why I’m acting like this.”  She also shared with me that she had been sent to jail four years ago on an accusation of child abuse (she had allegedly struck her teenage daughter during an argument), at which time David and his brothers were sent to an emergency children’s shelter for four nights.

Even though I’m not David’s regular doctor, I felt that these details were relevant to his case.  It was entirely possible, in my opinion, that David’s home environment—a mother using prescription drugs inappropriately, a possible history of trauma—had contributed to his mood lability and “temper dysregulation,” something that a “bipolar” label might mask.

But I’m not writing this to argue that David isn’t “bipolar.”  Instead, I wish to point out that I obtained these details simply by observing the interaction between David and his mom over the course of ~30 minutes, and asking a few questions, and not by reading his EMR record.  In fact, after the appointment I reviewed the last 12 months of his EMR record, which showed dozens of psychiatrists’ notes, therapists’ notes, case manager’s notes, demographic updates, and “treatment plans,” and all of it was generally the same:  diagnosis, brief status updates, LOTS of boilerplate mumbo-jumbo, pages and pages of checkboxes, a few mentions of symptoms.  Nothing about David’s home situation or mom’s past.  In fact, nothing about mom at all.  I could not have been the first clinician to have had concerns about David’s home environment, but if such information was to be found in his EMR record, I had no idea where.

Medical charts—particularly in psychiatry—are living documents.  To any physician who has practiced for more than a decade or so, simply opening an actual, physical, paper chart can be like unfolding a treasure map:  you don’t know what you’ll find, but you know that there may be riches to be revealed.   Sometimes, while thumbing through the chart, a note jumps out because it’s clearly detailed or something relevant is highlighted or “flagged” (in the past, I learned how to spot the handwriting of the more perceptive and thorough clinicians).  Devices like Post-It notes or folded pages provide easy—albeit low-tech—access to relevant information.  Also, a thick paper chart means a long (or complicated) history in treatment, necessitating a more thorough review.  Sometimes the absence of notes over a period of time indicates a period of decompensation, a move, or, possibly a period of remission.  All of this is available, literally, at one’s fingertips.

EMRs are far more restrictive.  In David’s case, the EMR was my only source of information—apart from David himself.  And for David, it seemed sterile, bland, just a series of “check-ins” of a bipolar kid on Risperdal.  There was probably more info somewhere in there, but it was too difficult and non-intuitive to access.  Hence, the practice (adopted by most clinicians) of just opening up the patient’s most recent note—and that’s it.

Unfortunately, this leads to a therapeutic myopia that may change how we practice medicine.  EMRs, when used this way, are here-and-now.  They have become the medical equivalent of Facebook.  When I log on to the EMR, I see my patient’s most recent note—a “status update,” so to speak—but not much else.  It takes time and effort to search through a patient’s profile for more relevant historical info—and that’s if you know where to look.  After working with seven different EMRs in the last six years, I can say that they’re all pretty similar in this regard.  And if an electronic chart is only going to be used for its most recent note, there’s no incentive to be thorough.

Access to information is great.  But the “usability” of EMRs is so poor that we have easy access only to what the last clinician thought was important.  Or better yet, what he or she decided to document.  The rest—like David’s home life, the potential impact of his mother’s behavior on his symptoms, and environmental factors that require our ongoing attention, all of which may be far more meaningful than David’s last Risperdal dose—must be obtained “from scratch.”  If it is obtained at all.

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