Recently, a colleague of ours described the office electronic health record as “the vortex that sucks you in.” This statement occurred during a departmental meeting focused on physician burnout. When members of the department were asked about what things they felt contributed to a feeling of dissatisfaction with work, the electronic health record quickly emerged as a common denominator of dissatisfaction. There were certainly other contributors – the changing and challenging medical environment, fighting with insurance companies, decreased autonomy over practice decisions – but far and away the most cited contributor to dissatisfaction among members of the department was the EHR.
The reasons that EHRs have led to dissatisfaction seem to have changed over the last few years. Initially, physicians found it difficult to suddenly adapt practice styles developed over many years to the new world of electronic documentation. Suddenly they needed to type (or in the case of many, hunt and peck) notes into the history of present illness and fit patient histories into templates seemingly developed by engineers rather than physicians. Now, while most of us have adapted to the logistics of the EHR, there is no escaping the increasing demands for more and more information. There is also ongoing frustration with the lack of control in deciding whether information is relevant for the patient, as well as disparity between the promise and expectation of what electronic records should deliver and what we experience each day in front of us.
Given the degree to which EHRs are contributing to physician dissatisfaction and burnout, it is incumbent upon us to figure out ways to make the EHR work better for clinicians. The literature describes burnout as “a syndrome characterized by a loss of enthusiasm for work (emotional exhaustion), feelings of cynicism (depersonalization), and a low sense of personal accomplishment.” In a recent study, almost half of all physicians described at least one symptom of burnout. Interestingly, physician burnout is greatest in primary care specialties. Surprisingly, compared with other working adults in the United States, physicians are more likely to have symptoms of burnout (38% vs 28%) as well as express dissatisfaction with their work-life balance (40% vs. 23%).1 This issue is important because burnout – in addition to its negative effects on physicians’ experience and quality of life – can erode the quality of the care they give, increase the risk of medical errors, and lead to early ending of lifelong careers.2 The literature suggests that the high prevalence of burnout among U.S. physicians means that “the problem lies more with the system and environment in which physicians work rather than being due to innate vulnerabilities in a few susceptible individuals.” Not surprisingly, we have received letters from readers of our column over many years discussing how the entry of EHRs into their practice was a critical influence in their decisions to retire early.
In our discussion after the department meeting, several physicians described the need to do charting at night from home in order to have their work accomplished for the next day. This is not surprising to any of us who work in primary care and use EHRs. The ability to have access to the EHR anytime and from anywhere is a classic double-edged sword. It is certainly convenient to be able to complete our charting from home without having to stay late in the office on nights and weekends. Unfortunately, bringing work home also erodes into time that could otherwise be spent with family and pursuing other interests.
This is just one of many frustrations. Another common issue is superfluous documentation on the part of specialists. Often, the information is entered by physician extenders or using canned macros to “pad” the note. Sifting through paragraphs of this irrelevant – and sometimes inaccurate – information in consultant notes devalues the integrity of the interaction. It also minimizes the time that was actually spent in the office doing the real hard work of medicine instead of the rudimentary work of documenting things that were either never said or mentioned briefly in passing.
The week after our department meeting was the first week of work for our new interns. Rounding in one of our nursing homes, I handed the intern a patient’s chart and began to explain how the chart was organized – where the orders, progress notes, and labs were located in the chart. The intern had an odd smile on her face. I asked her what was wrong. She replied, “I didn’t know anyone still had paper charts; how do you enter a note there?”
So we come full circle. You can’t miss what you never had. Younger physicians do not resent the EHR, nor can they perceive the EHR to be contributing to discontent. That is not to say that it does not contribute; it is just difficult to identify problems when the way things are is what you have always known. The issue of EHRs contributing to physician burnout is real, and we need to learn more about its causes. Please email us with your thoughts about the aspects of EHRs that you find most frustrating or challenging. Our goal in hearing from you is that it is only by knowing the challenges that we face that we can begin to formulate solutions to overcome those challenges and together make tomorrow’s practice better than today’s.
1. Shanafelt TD et al. Burnout and satisfaction with work-life balance among U.S. physicians relative to the general U.S. population. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(18):1377-85.
2. Shanafelt TD, Balch CM, Bechamps G et al. Burnout and medical errors among American surgeons. Ann Surg. 2010;251(6):995-1000.
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. 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.