Physician Heal Thyself – A Letter to My Doctors

Muhammad ibn Zakariya ar-Razi

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Hi all:  Do you remember a while back when I blogged about a visit to my doctor where she was so busy inputting information into her EMR – that she forgot to examine me?  I sat on the exam table while she sat with her back to me interviewing me according to the EMR template.

I experienced another interesting doctor’s visit just last week.  Read my Letter to My Doctors on Excellence in Health Information.

All my best as always,



Too Expensive to Fix

I recently came across a 2003 issue of Journal of Healthcare Information Management that is almost entirely devoted to measuring the ROI of HIT investments and I was struck by this quote from Richard Lang, EdD in his Editor’s Introduction.

“Although an ROI may predict how long it will take a capital investment to return anticipated savings via cost reductions or new revenue, it lacks a suitable measurement for the “qualitative” aspects that can contribute heavily to the realization of strategic objectives” (Lang, 2003)

I have worked with or talked to so many providers over the last year who realized they made a mistake in the way they planned to realize, or in how they measured, the ROI of their EMR systems.  One health system executive said he knows his organization made a mistake in their plans for EMR implementation and he admits they made incorrect assumptions about where they would see the return on their investment.  But he asked – how do you get an entire organization to admit that that it made a mistake? Even if it does, what can they do about it after spending many millions of dollars? Start all over? Not likely. And they are not alone.  Currently several of these providers are coming to my employer, M*Modal, looking to augment the capabilities of their EMR in hope of achieving the strategic objectives they expected to see upon EMR implementation.

One of the most common mistakes seems to come from the assumption that point-and-click data entry and structured EMR forms are a better way to capture health information than narrative dictation.  Many in fact incorrectly believe that direct-data entry into structured reporting is the only way an organization can get the discrete data they need to drive automated clinical decision support, to enable population reporting, and to attain the holy grail of electronic health information – semantic interoperability.

One of the primary contributors to ROI that these providers expected to see was the elimination of dictation and medical transcription costs.  After all, since the doctors can point-and-click their way through a structured form, why should they need to dictate?  Since many of these facilities spend millions of dollars every year on dictation and transcription, the cost benefit seems like a no-brainer.  And let’s face it; many of the decision-makers aren’t accustomed to looking at the aspects of health information which can only be measured qualitatively.  They are accustomed to looking at FTE expense and productivity units.

However, they found several things:

  • Point-and-click methods of information capture can be time-consuming, cumbersome, non-intuitive, and significantly add to the physician’s documentation time, even sometimes causing a decrease in the number of patients physicians see in a day.
  • The information captured is not as usable for clinical care and some HIM functions as narrative forms of documentation.  As one physician told me, “I like that I have access to all the patient vitals, but I can’t tell how the patient feels today compared to how he felt yesterday.”
  • The quality of the documentation is often degraded as well.  Physicians copy and paste in order to save time and end up with duplicate, extraneous, or contradictory information.  They enter information into the miscellaneous text boxes because they can’t find a place for the information they wanted to capture in the drop-down menus and structured fields.  And in the traditional EMR world, information captured in the plain text boxes = no structured data = information that is lost in the computer and can’t be reused by the EMR.  As one IT manager said, “we have several thousand physicians using it, but that doesn’t mean they are using it correctly.”

So getting back to the quote at the top of this post, in counting on the elimination of narrative documentation, and thus dictation and transcription, as an expense that can be eliminated, providers often forget about the cost of the physician’s time and about the cost of degraded quality of information.  In the organization’s quest for structured data, they forget about the clinician’s need to use health information as a means of communication. They forget that one of the benefits to be gained as a result of the implementation and use of electronic health information is the improved health of the patient. That is, some of the benefits will not be realized by the provider but rather will be felt by the recipients of the improved, more efficient care.  This type of return on a technology investment is not as easily measured as number of FTEs or productivity units per hour.

At M*Modal, we’re working with several providers now who have realized that they can give physicians the option to document patient care using narrative dictation AND still get the structured data they need. They’ve realized that their objectives for truly useful and cost-effective documentation can only be achieved if the system offers options and flexibility for capturing health information.  Is the solution always optimal? No – because EMRs with their proprietary data formats aren’t eager to open up to accept readily-exchangeable data standards.  Some organizations are beginning to look to capabilities available outside of their EMRs as the solution to their problems.  But what happens to the providers who cannot afford to look to complementary solutions that will help them to realize the benefits they expected to get from their EMRs?

Though the government-driven efforts to encourage the adoption and use of electronic health information through the ARRA, HITECH, and Meaningful Use certainly have increased interest in HIT, one negative result is that providers might place so much emphasis on the financial incentives that they don’t look at the benefits of health information that can’t be measured in cost per FTE or in CMS incentive payments.  I hope that providers who are only now in the decision-making process take note of the lessons-learned by others before they too end up with a problem too expensive to fix.

Food for thought,


Originally appeared at Excellence in Health Information


Lang, R. (2003).  ROI and IT:  Strategic alignment and selection objectivity.  Journal of Healthcare Information Management.  Volume 17, number 4. Fall 2003.

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