To Combat Physician Burnout and Improve Care, Fix the Electronic Health Record

By Robert Wachter and Jeff Goldsmith

After a blizzard of hype surrounding the electronic health record (EHR), health professionals are now in full backlash mode against this complex new tool. They are rightly seen as a major cause of professional burnout among physicians and nurses: Clinicians are spending almost half their professional time typing, clicking, and checking boxes on electronic records. They can and must be made into useful, easy-to-use tools that liberate, rather than oppress, clinicians.

Performing several tasks, badly. The EHR is a lot more than merely an electronic version of the patient’s chart. It has also become the control panel for managing the clinical encounter through clinician order entry. Moreover, through billing and regulatory compliance, it has also become a focal point of quality-improvement efforts. While some of these efforts actually have improved quality and patient safety, many others served merely to “buff up the note” to make the clinician look good on “process” measures, and simply maximize billing.

Mashing up all these functions — charting, clinical ordering, billing/compliance, and quality improvement — inside the EHR has been a disaster for the clinical user, in large part because the billing/compliance function has dominated. The pressure from angry physician users has produced a medieval solution: Hospital and clinics have hired tens of thousands of scribes literally to follow clinicians around and record their notes and orders into the EHR. Only in health care, it seems, could we find a way to “automate” that ended up adding staff and costs!

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