Technology in the exam room

December 16, 2015

In the interests of full disclosure, I want to state that in my checkered past, I have belonged to a couple of interesting organizations. In my early teens, I belonged to the National Rifle Association. As a geeky kid growing up in the Midwest, I got deeply involved in competitive target shooting through a team at the local YMCA. We shot .22 caliber rimfire bolt-action “target rifles,” at standard targets at 50 feet. I was actually pretty good at it. To do this and compete in various matches, we all joined the NRA. I also avidly read “The American Rifleman,” the NRA monthly magazine and Sports Afield. After a couple of years of looking at pictures of  middle-aged men with rifles posing beside large dead furry animals, I realized that improving one’s proficiency with firearms is ultimately about doing mortal harm to other creatures. In survival situations, if one is hunting for food or part of a military conflict, I am all for proficiency with firearms. Go for it! Otherwise, not so much. My membership lapsed when I was about 14, and I’m not going to re-up now. (Yes, I do admit to some pictures of me with large fish. I am a strictly single-hook, barbless, catch-and-release fly fisherman.)

The American Medical Association is the other organization I’ve belonged to in the past, but with which I have never really come to terms. The AMA has been fairly consistent about opposing rational reform of the American health care system. Based on the historical record, the best thing that I can say for the AMA is that the organization has been even-handed. It has opposed every initiative, whether Republican (yes, both TR and Nixon supported health care reform) or Democratic (FDR, Truman, Ted Kennedy).  I joined some years ago, thinking that more academic physicians should get involved.  That was a naïve idea.

Having ‘fessed up, I hope you will understand that once on the AMA email list, a physician is on it for life. In fact, maybe longer; I can’t say yet.

So, here is a quote from one of yesterday’s (12/14) AMA Morning News stories, titled Some physicians suffering burnout over EHR mandates, “In a 1,200-word story, the Chicago Tribune discussed how the Federal government’s “elaborate – or maddening and onerous – system of electronic health records” is affecting physicians. According to the Tribune, medical associations nationwide are attributing “increasing doctor burnout to the demands of clicking through page after page of records, whether the patient shows up for a physical, a quick follow-up visit, or treatment for chronic disease.” Recently, “Mayo Clinic researchers, working with the American Medical Association, found that more than half of physicians felt emotionally exhausted.” Contributing to that exhaustion are “heavier workloads and ‘increased clerical responsibilities.’”

Now, I hope you do realize that the AMA’s default position on the federal government is not amicable. Nonetheless, I think they may have a valid point here.

The Wall Street Journal of December 14th also had a piece titled, “Is Your Doctor Getting Too Much Screen Time?” by Sumathi Reddy. The report was nicely balanced between patient and physician viewpoints, and covered both some pros and some cons. (For “fair balance,” I had a look at the New York Times, too. They did not have much objective data, but there was a terrific blog piece. 

With the AMA and WSJ articles on my mind, I went to PubMed and did a clinical search for “electronic health records patient satisfaction” and one for “electronic health records physician satisfaction.” In PubMed, overall, the patient-related citations outnumbered the physician-related citations three to one. Given publication bias (the tendency to publish positive results rather than negative findings), I suspect that the researchers make the patients’ somewhat happier with EHRs than they really are, but here are a few take-home observations.

  1. In a “similar articles” search on satisfaction with EHRs, the publications were heavily weighted toward exploring patient satisfaction. I estimate the recent ratio is about 10:1 toward patient rather than physician satisfaction.
  2. Among the few articles that looked at physician satisfaction, the highest rate of “very satisfied” physicians that I found was 38%.
  3. One telling issue was that EHR suppliers felt that their “customers” were hospital managers or practice managers, not the health care professionals using the system.
  4. American patients were concerned about “eye contact.” In contrast, European patients were concerned about data privacy.

I’m not about to jump on the podium and tell you that I know the answer to the problems of implementing EHRs into medical practice. I certainly don’t know the solution to reducing the stresses of being a physician in today’s world. But here are a few thoughts that came to me as I reflected on the data and some of my own recent visits for out-patient health care.

First, the architecture of the space in which patients and providers interact is archaic. The traditional exam room must have originated in the early 20th century. The layout certainly inhibits communication when the provider has to use electronic technology. I don’t mind sitting on an exam table, but when the exam or procedure is over, wouldn’t it be nice to get dressed and sit down beside the doctor (or nurse practitioner) for a quick discussion looking at the data together? When I went to the Cleveland Clinic for my most recent orthopedic check, Viktor Krebs reviewed the films with me on a monitor in the exam room. On a recent visit with Bawa Das, a retinal specialist here in Michigan, he showed me my fluorescein angiogram on a monitor right in the exam room. Both of these physicians are exceptional individuals, and both of them used what I would call “work-around” solutions, but they did work. Think how much easier and more effective these interactions would be if the exam rooms were actually designed with wall-mounted monitors and a work station where the patient and the provider could sit together and look at the screen!

Second, steady improvement in handwriting and voice recognition technology is likely to reduce the future “input burden” for providers, but providers are going to have to complain loudly about the burden to get the managerial classes to continue to invest in technology as it changes.

Third, we should be more concerned about personal privacy. The Europeans have legitimate concerns. (Check the NY Times blog link mentioned above for more on this.)

The bottom line? The technology is not going away, any more than the NRA or the AMA will. But, unlike our relationships with organizations where we don’t fit in, we can’t just drop out of our technologic world and make a reasonable living growing organic crops. We have to develop a reasonable degree of proficiency in using the tools, and we also have to get involved in making the technology work for us. That’s a hint to readers for further discussion…

By the way, if you found the “Hullabaloo about Drug Prices” interesting, you might want to look at “The Folly of Targeting Big Pharma: The biggest driver of rising health-care spending is the cost of labor, not drugs” by Michael Mandel in the Wall Street Journal. (Dec. 10, 2015)