The Neverending Story

An electronic medical record example

Image via Wikipedia

We’re hearing a lot about the use of electronic medical records (EMR) in medicine. The government is all for it—providing financial incentives for those with EMRs and disincentives for those still relying on paper charts to make their way through the world. Most health professionals, especially new physicians in training, simply can’t imagine a world without an EMR at their fingertips.

The ability to electronically capture discrete bits of data on each patient allows us to categorize, tally, and build unbelievably beautiful charts and graphs. These systems also uncover deficiencies in patient care; with the push of a button, we know whose blood pressure or blood sugar is out of control, or how many patients weigh too much for their height. Clinicians click-through as many templates as possible in order for the system to capture these professional nuggets of information. Nuggets worth their weight in gold to researchers and pharmaceutical companies, eager to market their next blockbuster drug to physicians whose patients just happen to fit their marketing profile. The trouble is when you’ve seen one template–built patient medical record, you’ve seen them all. These systems do such a great job of capturing discrete bits of data that patients become just that—only discrete bits of data.The essence of who they are, their story, becomes lost in attempts at efficiency.

What interests me about each patient is their story: what’s happening in their life that brings them stress or joy. Are they wanting medication for their cough, or really just needing assurance they don’t have lung cancer. Each visit brings a new chapter, a peeling of the onion allowing me to see the various layers of their personality over time. This is more important than almost any other discrete piece of data we could fit into a template. It takes time and effort to build an electronic medical record that speaks for the patient; time that is often in short supply for busy clinicians.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” We certainly know the price of a robust EMR, but its value for helping us know each patient is unclear. Before we jump on this wagon of bandwidth, we need to understand what we hope to gain and the value it brings to the person that counts—the patient.

About Steve P. Sanders

A general internist writing and sharing ideas and art.

One Response to “The Neverending Story”

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