By Greg Slabodkin
Have you seen your doctor lately and noticed during the office visit they seem a bit distracted by their computers, rarely making eye contact with you? You’re not alone. Welcome to the age of digital medicine in which physicians have been relegated to the role of data entry clerks, preoccupied with inputting information into their electronic health record (EHR) systems.
EHRs were supposed to improve patient care. But, instead, they have gotten in the way of meaningful doctor-patient communication. With their faces buried in their computer screens and feverishly entering data into their systems, clinicians have been diverted from what’s fundamentally important – human interaction with the patients sitting in front of them.
Physicians are the first to admit that EHRs are a burdensome, time-consuming process for electronically documenting patient encounters in the medical record. Yet, they seem powerless to be more present with their patients.
A recently published study by researchers at Brown University and Healthcentric Advisors found that hospital-based doctors commented most frequently that they spend less time with patients because they have to spend more time on computers for documentation, while office-based physicians commented most frequently on EHRs worsening the quality of their interactions and relationships with patients.
Thanks to the Health Information Technology and Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act of 2009, the federal government has paid more than $35 billion in financial incentives to doctors and hospitals in order to get them to adopt EHR systems. Eight years later, the adoption of this technology by care providers is nearly universal.
However, EHR implementation has been far from smooth, with the net effect on patient care decidedly negative. Instead of putting patients at the center of care, physicians have made their computers the focus of their attention. To reverse this trend, health care providers need to change their processes, culture and behavior.
While the learning curve for older doctors who went to medical school prior to the advent of EHRs is understandable, even the future physicians entering residency training do not have the ability to effectively and efficiently work with EHRs. Although medical schools are excellent at preparing students for the clinical sciences, there is a gap in EHR training. It’s the reason the American Medical Association and the Regenstrief Institute earlier this year launched a new training platform, which is starting to be implemented by some medical schools, aimed at ensuring that students get real-world experience using these digital tools.
No one is advocating that physicians go back to the antiquated days of paper-based medical records.
But, there has to be a better way for clinicians to use EHRs. As a society, we go through our daily lives with our faces buried in our mobile devices, barely looking up at other human beings. As they practice medicine, doctors cannot afford to make that same mistake with patients.
Greg Slabodkin, of Niagara Falls, is managing editor of the online trade publication Health Data Management.