Friday, December 2, 2011

Rethinking electronic documentation filters

"Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes, I'm afraid it's time for goodbye again..."
- Billy Joel, Songs in the Attic, 1981

So I was thinking more about the challenges with electronic documentation. As I mentioned in my last post, I'm thrilled that people are going to be seeking ways to transmit notes to each other, but I'm just not convinced we have agreement about *what* to send and *when*.

The problem is that healthcare reform is going to center around documentation. So documentation is going to become more important than ever. Knowing :

  1. What and when to document - and...
  2. How to find the right information quickly

... is becoming a key survival skill for hospitals and doctor's offices.

So for today, I wanted to ponder #2 above - (I'm going to ponder on #1 in my next post...)

As part of my job, I teach docs about how-to-find-the-information-they're-looking for. Most EMR software has some system of "filters" you use to narrow down your search to exactly what-you-need.

Sometimes those filters, and learning to use them, can be a little complex, and it's not always the most intuitive. So I wondered - How can we make it more intuitive? I wondered how *I* would graphically re-think a chart - If the chart is all about a patient's life, then why not start with a simple timeline?

(Of course, since we don't really ever know when the end will be, we can just assume the line will have "TODAY" listed on the other side from "START".)

Anyway, during our lifetimes we will all have interactions with people - That's what we want to record. The goal of the medical chart is to document all those interactions.

Some relationships will last for varying lengths of time, all generally starting with a "HELLO" and a "GOODBYE".

It's funny - I think as human beings, our brains tend to remember the "Hellos" and "Goodbyes" much more than we remember the stuff in-between. Anyway, in clinical terms, that "HELLO" is either an "Admission H&P", an "Intake Note", or some sort of a "Primary Evaluation" - And the "GOODBYE" is a "Discharge Summary", "Transfer Note", or some other type of "Signoff Note"  :

But of course, if you're following that person regularly, you check in from time-to-time throughout the duration of your relationship. In "best-friend" terms, that's a "stop-by-for-a-visit" or "chat on Facebook". But in clinical terms, these "check-ins" are your progress notes :

The challenge then in documenting your life is that you will have to manage the information about these sorts of ongoing relationships for many people in your life :

And so if they all have an Admission-type note, several progress notes, and a discharge-type note - You already have a large amount of data to keep track of.

And making things more complex is that other people in your life will only be brief but still-important encounters - The cashier you met while withdrawing money while on vacation, the dermatologist you saw once to burn off a wart... Some of the people you interact with in your life will just be single encounters :

Finally, I think it's also important, when re-thinking the medical record, to remember that a patient's life will be punctuated by changes in level-of-care. As long as you have some kind of health coverage, you will always be in one level-of-care or another. (It's even debatable - If you have no insurance, could you still be in an "outpatient setting"? Deep philosophical questions for the healthcare informaticist!) So if we look at the patient's life from this level-of-care perspective, there are definite punctuations which are immediately useful at understanding clinical activities in time :

And so, whoever tries to comprehensively document the life of a patient will have a very complex issue to untangle - Who documented what, and when? :

Fortunately, I think most people think intuitively when inquiring about a patient's life - You either want the whole story, or a part of it. And how much you ask for will depend on your need. Want to admit them for a psychiatric admission? You might be interested in their first childhood pediatric notes. Have a "frequent flyer" you know well? You might just want the notes from the last few levels-of-care. And with computers, it's fairly easy to draw a box over the time period and notes (colors) you want :

Of course, this is somewhat of a jumbled mess - But if the user could help arrange the order of the colors they wanted, they could sort out the mess (by their own individual preference), and then by dragging one box :

... you could quickly select :

  1. The timeframe you need (X-axis)
  2. The notes you need, by your general and immediate preference (Y-axis)

Of course, the colored lines above make it sort of complicated (would some users interpret this to mean the patient had all of these people in their lives throughout the duration of time?), so maybe you would prefer to be able to check off the notes (by profession) you want, as you make your query for documentation :

... and so in this way, you could quickly get to the notes you want - In time, using levels-of-care as a marker, and by specialty. (But remember a common problem with electronic documentation : Sometimes you WANT the doc to see "REALLY IMPORTANT" stuff from a specialty they didn't think to look for, e.g. Case Management, physical therapy, chaplain services - In the paper world, those "REALLY IMPORTANT" things were usually done as a "sticker on the chart" or something like that... It's a little trickier to do that sort of thing with an electronic chart. Who gets to decide what's "REALLY IMPORTANT"?)

OF COURSE, making this sort of a search filter available for your own medical record would depends on some of the following factors :

  1. Having a common (or at least steady) patient identifier, so that someone will be able to assemble all the documentation from all of these different clinical people you interact with.
  2. The ability to mark documentation with not only the author, but the profession/specialty they represent.
  3. Being able to mark changes in level of care across a healthcare delivery system.
... so I'm not counting on seeing this in any software tomorrow - But I think it's potentially another way to look at the mass of information about a patient and quickly get what you want in an intuitive way.

REMEMBER : WITH FREE OPINIONS, YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR. :) Always glad to hear from people - Feel free to leave thoughts and comments! :) In my next post, I'm going to ponder about "How much documentation is enough?" - Stay tuned! :)

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