A * Readable * Usable * Patient Note

It’s not just the clicks. It’s creating a Readable.Usable.Note.[1][2] It is embarrassing to look at a patient chart and read: “Your HDL (good) cholesterol is excellent but your LDL (bad) cholesterol is too high. I would recommend trying to reduce sure fact food intake.” What? Oh, yeah, reduce your fatty food intake. Or worse: “She wanted me to know that she had a laparoscopic hysterectomy and in for reck to me over the summer.” That one took a while to figure out. What I dictated was “she had a laparoscopic hysterectomy and oopherectomy over the summer.” Ouch. I read over my notes before I sign them but between the rush of seeing patients and the problem with editing your own notes within the horrible output that electronic records produce, it’s easy to miss your own mistakes.

The notes are built to maximize the billing that we do. But frankly, even though I revisit a patient’s chart and check their past medical history, update their meds, update their family history, review their social history, etc. IT DOESN’T NEED TO BE REPEATED IN THE NOTE! However, if I don’t rewrite all that, Medicare or the insurance company doesn’t believe I did it and I can’t charge for it. As a consequence everything is repetitive and finding the little gem of information one needs to care for the patient becomes more and more difficult. As anyone who has ever received the reams and reams of paper from an ER with an electronic health record (EHR) that has no discernible font changes or indentation can tell you, it is next to impossible to determine why the patient was there, what treatment they received and what followup they need.

To counteract this I dictate my medical reasoning in the discussion box at the end of the note. Next visit that’s where to look to find the important stuff. Of course this increases the amount of time documenting, taking away more precious moments I have to spend with the patient creating inelegant notes that are one step away from being worthless for subsequent treatment.

What if we could create two notes for every patient. One that went in to the billing records for auditing purposes and one culling the important stuff into a true “patient care note”. Surely there is software that could help us with that.

To quote Dr. Vartabedian: What do you think?

1. We need to reassess the patient note. http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2013/08/reassess-patient-note.html
2. The doctor will see your medical record now. http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/08/05/study_reveals_doctors_are_spending_even_less_time_with_patients.html

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Care-less Care and Telemedicine

One of my irritations with fast track care, especially Kroger’s Little Clinics, is the overuse of antibiotics. Living in Louisville, where allergies are king, a simple cold often turns into two weeks of miserably clogged sinuses from increased swelling in already perennially irritated mucous membranes.  A few days ago a new version of “careless care” appeared on my radar. Teladoc advertises itself as the first and largest telehealth provider in the US. Some insurance companies and employers pay for their members to utilize the service. This particular patient used it three times in six months, each time receiving and antibiotic for a “sinus” infection, despite the fact that each time she’d only had symptoms for four or five days. She finally came to see me because the medication the teledocs gave never seemed to help. Go figure.


We spent some time talking about the difference between viral infections and bacterial ones, and discussing the problem with bacterial resistance due to the overuse of antibiotics. She promised to see me with her next episode and appeared rueful that she’d not come in sooner with the previous episodes.


The fact that telemedicine can lead to the overuse of antibiotics has been studied[1]. I was unable to find any studies evaluating overprescribing in Urgent Care Centers so I can only relate my own experience. The ERs and the NP staffed Walgreen clinics in my area do a much better job than the Kroger “Little Clinics” where antibiotic prescribing seems to be more ubiquitous than high fructose corn syrup. 


As telemedicine and other forms of convenient care increase, the fragmentation of healthcare does the same. Did I get any patient information from the Teladoc physician? No, of course not. Almost never do I get documents from the Walgreens/Kroger/Walmart nurse practitioner. I can’t fight the convenience and know that as more and more patients have difficulties conveniently getting in to see their primary care doctors, this will only get worse. It is imperative that these groups communicate with patients’ physicians. The question is, do I have an imperative to educate the Board Certified Physician who works for Teladoc? And why do I suspect he/she might not appreciate that? The answer is, I need my healthcare system to allow me to use telemedicine to treat my own patients at their convenience.


1. Ateev Mehrotra, MD; Suzanne Paone, DHA; G. Daniel Martich, MD; Steven M. Albert, PhD; Grant J. Shevchik, MD JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173(1): 72-74.doi:10.1001/2013.jamainternmed.305http://www.webcitation.org/6F5uFLPIY

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Saying Goodbye

It’s Friday afternoon and I check the day’s schedule. A name jumps out at me and I groan a little and worry–what am I going to say to someone I’ve treated for twenty years, who’s my age and just been admitted to hospice care? If this is goodbye, how do I as a physician, who is more than an acquaintance but not quite a friend, handle this appointment?

All kinds of things go through my head. Do I really want to charge for this? How bad will he look? Can I keep from crying? Is there anything I can do for him anyway? Will I ask the right questions? Will I say the right things?

He comes with a relative. He is living alone but they have found a nursing home that he liked today and he hopes to transition there quickly. He has one sorrow and one fear. He needs to find a home for his dog of 14 years. He shows me a picture of a cute lap dog of some sort. Amazingly, during his last hospital stay he met someone who is willing to take care of the dog. His fear is how breathless he will be near the end. I reassure him that every effort will be made to make him comfortable and he should not suffer.

We talk a little about his parents, with whom he has been estranged for some time. He assures me that he has spoken with them. They are older and have had their own medical challenges. I cannot imagine how they feel. He jokes a little about his relationship with them.

Finally it is time for him to go. He looks tired, but not that ill. He asks me if he should try to eat, he doesn’t have much appetite, and I encourage him to eat whatever he wants. He stands up and gives me a hug, whispering “I love you” in my ear as he does. After reminding me that the phone is a good method of communication, he leaves.

I am lost in thought and emotion but still have two more patients to see. I take a breath, walk into the next room and apologize for my tardiness. It’s probably obvious that I’m upset but the rhythm of seeing patients takes over and somehow, reassures me.

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Patient Access to Their Data

The Open Notes initiative has created a flurry of interest in the on-line medical community but not even a blip that I can tell in my personal world. Patients appear oblivious. The story was not covered by our local newspaper. No physicians are nervously or otherwise discussing it in our doctor’s lounge.


Despite Meaningful Use criteria breathing down our organizations’s neck, which includes patient portals with the capability to obtain their records electronically, no one is talking about this important study: three healthcare systems, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Geisinger Health System in  Pennsylvania, and Harborview Medical Center in Seattle participated. This included 105 doctors and more than 13,000 patients. When the study was finished 99% of patients surveyed wanted continued access to their notes and NO DOCTORS opted out. 

The last phrase is the most important one to me as a physician. In my world doctors are often very nervous at the thought of patients obtaining access to their own records even though technically the patient owns the record. Yet the more I see of charting, especially electronic charting, the more important it is that patients have the ability to access and help us improve their records. 

As an example, I recently had a new patient who related being involved in a motor vehicle accident many years ago. He’d had surgery shortly after but he wasn’t sure whether or not he’d had his spleen removed, though he knew it had ruptured. This is important because individuals who have no spleen are at increased risk of certain kinds of infections and need routine and regular followup vaccinations to protect them. The first thing I did was access records from an abdominal hernia surgery he’d had just a few years ago, to repair a hernia he had as a result of the first surgery. The operating doctor dictated in his note that the patient had had a splenectomy. I wasn’t convinced so I dug a little further and fortunately the hospital still had records of the first surgery (by law the hospital does not have to keep records from over twenty years ago). The patient did not have his spleen removed and thus needs neither recurrent vaccinations or  expensive imaging to figure out the answer. But what if I’d just taken the mistaken word of the second surgeon? How much better if the patient had been given easy access to his records years ago when he’d first wondered? 

Soon, patients will have access to their own charts and will be capable of giving much better histories or better yet, will have their medical stories in their own Personal Health Records. This can save a lot in time and unnecessary tests, not to mention improved accuracy in patient records. Because after all, who has more at stake in the accuracy of the record than the patient? Or as e-Patient Dave deBronkart says: 
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Communicating via Patient Portal

It’s Saturday night and I’m tying up loose ends, signing off patient referral letters, sending messages to staff to do on Monday and “playing” in the test environment of our EHR to try to better understand it. My husband is working a 12-hour shift at an immediate care clinic, my daughter is with a friend and the cats are not trying to get in my lap right at this moment. The house is quiet, with nothing but the soft swishing noise the dishwasher makes and for some reason, that always soothes me. Maybe because cleaning is happening without my active participation. It occurs to me that I haven’t checked RelayHealth.com, our patient portal, since early yesterday morning. 

RelayHealth.com

I log on and there are two messages. One from a patient that needs her atorvastatin refilled. I thought it had been done at the time of our visit yesterday but when she arrived at the pharmacy only her blood pressure pills were there. Apparently I neglected to check the drop down box in the prescription area of our EHR. In her case the default setting was “record” instead of “send to retail pharmacy” (it varies per patient for some mysterious reason) and I missed checking ONE of the three prescriptions correctly. This is a system problem that needs to be addressed but in the meantime my patients will sometimes get less than all of the multiple prescriptions they need refilled. The good news is that she figured out how to use the portal, sent me a message, I read it and immediately logged back into the EHR system and sent the prescription to the pharmacy. Then I messaged her back to say the prescription should be ready in the morning. COOL!

The second message is from a patient who has found data regarding the use of metformen and psychiatric disease. She is tech savvy and figured out how to scan and send me a PDF file of the published research. COOL! Now I’m learning from my patients even when I’m not in the office. I send her a message promising to read the article and get back to her and jokingly tell her that I hope all my patients aren’t as smart as she is or I’ll be inundated with reading material. Tomorrow I can respond to the article.

So far not a large number of my patients know about or have bothered to sign up for the portal but I’ve been very happy with the interactions I’ve had on it. Earlier in the year a woman had an illness that seemed to linger forever. I was running tests and talking to specialists and was certain that this would pass but it was frustrating for her. I think it helped both of us that she could communicate directly with me throughout the illness and may have saved her some trips to the ER or Immediate Care Center because she had direct contact with me on a nearly daily basis. In return it was a relief to me to know how she was doing.

Physicians often hesitate to give this kind of access to patients because they are afraid it will be abused but that is short-sighted. Just like with the telephone, I have complete control over whether I answer or my medical assistant does. This way it can be done at my convenience and, in general, I hate communicating by telephone. Most patient messages are quick and to the point. If they need to be seen, I tell them so. It’s a plus to patient care from my perspective and am pleased with the results. I hope my patients feel the same way. 

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Burning Out on Friday Afternoon

Recently a Mayo Clinic sponsored study reported that the rate of physician burnout was much higher than other careers in the US[1], especially among front-line specialties like Family Medicine. This Friday afternoon in preparation to seeing my last patient it hit me “Is this sensation burnout?” Inwardly groaning–a new middle-aged woman with obesity and several psychiatric meds, my thoughts ran to “Who put her on my schedule damn it. It’s Friday afternoon. What did they think they were doing? Doesn’t anyone care about MY needs when they’re scheduling” or words to that effect. For a few moments I pondered my office life.

Lately, my office looks cleaner, because EHR (electronic health records) hides the mass of unfinished charts instead of having them all stacked on my desk. Now there is no obvious sign of all the work I do–no notice to my employer that I am an important, busy and valuable doctor. Despite the reduction in mess, I rarely leave the office before 7, often am there until 9 and everyone keeps telling me that it will get better, since we’re only four weeks “in”. This is exhausting me but at least my husband frequently meets me at the door with a glass of wine in hand. For this I am grateful since sometimes I finish up my charts on-line from  the couch.

Then there’s House Bill 1, the irritating and unfriendly-to-patient-care narcotic bill that takes up extra time and deprives my patients of therapeutic medications and remains a thorn in my side.

Add to those aggravations the everyday frustrations of practicing medicine in today’s fragmented healthcare system and maybe I needed to worry. This line of thought hit me as  I took a big breath, walking in the door expecting the worst and spent the next thirty minutes with a delightful woman who was already taking steps to improve her health. She was working with a trainer, she’d already started losing about twenty pounds. She was upbeat and interesting and I walked out of that room energized.

This Friday I got lucky. Maybe next Friday I’ll be drained. Reflecting on the end of my day I realized that’s just how the rhythm flows in Family Medicine. Like most professions, some days are better than others, but looking at the averages, my curve is mostly on the up. I still like what I do.

1. Shanafelt, Tait D. Burnout and Satisfaction With Work-Life Balance Among US Physicians Relative to the General US Population. August 20, 2012. http://www.webcitation.org/6AtdqOc4p

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