George Smith (DOB 2/12/51) is a 65-year-old male patient with a history of hypertension and hyperlipidemia who presents to his local emergency department complaining of worsening dyspnea. He has been suffering with a “chest cold” for the past week, and has also noticed a gradual increase in chest discomfort. The patient is unsure if this is related to exertion or due to his nonproductive cough, but describes the sensation as a “tightness that seems to be getting worse.” The emergency physician is appropriately concerned about a cardiac cause for his symptoms, but is reassured after a check of his electronic health record reveals a recent nuclear treadmill stress test showing normal myocardial perfusion and excellent exercise tolerance, with a low probability of coronary disease.

The only problem is that George Smith never had a stress test. In fact, it’s his twin brother James Smith – also with a birth date of 2/12/51 and a home in the same city – who just had the study done in preparation for surgery. The mix-up in the records began 3 weeks ago, when a tech in the cardiac testing department made an error registering James for his stress test, and now the results of his study have filed into the chart of his twin brother. Fortunately for George, the primary care physician who cares for both brothers happens to be in the emergency department seeing a different patient. He is “curbsided” by the ED doc and recognizes the identification error before the patient is to be discharged home.

This alarming situation – a fictionalized version of a story that happens regularly in hospitals all across the United States – highlights several serious problems with electronic health records. With all of their claimed advantages, EHRs have created a tremendous number of new complications. Some are obvious, such as increased documentation time, connectivity issues, hardware failures, and superfluous “overdocumentation.” But the more troubling issues with electronic records are the ones that are much subtler. Specifically, as the case above highlights, there is the tendency to “lose the forest in the trees” of the EHR, and actually make mistakes that can have devastating consequences. This month we want to cast a light on how electronic tools designed to improve quality and safety actually can compromise them, beginning with the unfortunate reality that …

Modern conveniences can make errors more convenient as well

One of the great advantages of a well-designed electronic record is the ease of locating information when you need it; by entering a few pieces of information such as a last name and date of birth, we can find the needed data in seconds. Unfortunately, this simple and elegant system has exposed a weakness in the people using it: confirmation bias – the idea that we all tend to see what we want to see. This is an adaptive behavior that we all develop to improve efficiency and successfully navigate all of the conscious and subconscious decisions we make throughout the day. Typically, confirmation bias serves to make our lives easier, but in the case above, it didn’t help Mr. Smith; on the contrary, it almost led to disastrous consequences. The error was fortunately recognized by his astute primary care physician, but this case could have ended much differently. The experience should serve as a reminder to us that …

We can easily lose the big picture

The days of hunting for missing patient charts are thankfully long gone, but there are a few critical aspects of paper records that have been lost in the translation to electronic form. One such missing piece was noted by a colleague when first transitioning to an EHR. After a day or two of struggling with the new software, he lamented “I’m missing the big picture!” He had lost the advantage of glancing at a paper chart and instantly recalling the details about his patients that he had compiled over many years of care. For many physicians like him, this may mean reviewing handwritten notes or jottings in the margin of the chart, but sometimes just the appearance of the chart itself is enough to trigger an intellectual or emotional response.

This notion simply doesn’t exist in the world of electronic “charts,” which are all uniform by design. In the quest to simplify workflow and encourage muscle memory, EHR designers have eschewed the intangible experience of holding a yellowing, dog-eared, overflowing patient folder. Instead, physicians now find themselves holding the same PC or tablet as they walk into every patient encounter, left with only a name and date of birth to distinguish one patient from the next. Even worse, the mere definition of a patient chart has moved from a physical construct to a metaphysical one. Charts can be anywhere and everywhere, and can be edited by any end user at virtually any point of care. This opens up almost limitless opportunities for error, and unfortunately …

Errors can last a lifetime

With each episode of care, the charts of the two Mr. Smiths could become more enmeshed, and the histories harder to untangle. (In this case, a passing reference to the stress test results in the ED intern’s history and physical of George Smith may perpetuate the mistake, even though the error has been caught this time.) When mistakes like this are identified, hundreds of collective staff hours can be required to unweave comingled medical records, even when they don’t result in patient harm. It is therefore critical to develop safeguards to prevent them from occurring in the first place, with efforts that include training programs, workflow process improvement, and technology enhancement.

Ultimately, it may be impossible to prevent all documentation errors. However, by focusing on the big picture and considering patient safety first, we can raise awareness of these and other critical issues and develop the tools and training necessary to make mistakes possible to avoid.

Dr. Notte is a family physician and clinical informaticist for Abington (Pa.) Memorial Hospital. He is also a partner in EHR Practice Consultants, a firm that aids physicians in adopting electronic health records. Dr. Skolnik is associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington (Pa.) Memorial Hospital and professor of family and community medicine at Temple University, Philadelphia.