The other day, I had to look up “whispered pectoriloquy” to be reminded of what it meant. The last time I had seen the term was when I was a third-year medical student.

I was motivated to look it up now as I was reading the review of systems in a patient note generated from an electronic health record. Interestingly, the note was written by a consulting urologist.

I have become accustomed to only glancing at the review of systems in most of the medical letters I receive, but this particular review of systems caught my attention. As I looked carefully at it, I noticed that the urologist documented that the patient denied chest pain, shortness of breath, double vision, and – oddly – loose stools. In fairness, the note also documented that the patient denied blood in his urine and nocturia.

I was quite doubtful that the physician actually asked the patient about chest pain and double vision, so I was facing a dilemma: believe all of the note, none of the note, or just the parts I felt confident were actually asked.

For a long time, I really did not think much about the problem. I just processed the observation with a sense of mild amusement and absurdity, and mostly with an acceptance that these kinds of observations were an annoying but unavoidable side effect of systems created by computer engineers and forced upon doctors.

But I became more concerned as I read further. The physical exam documented a detailed cardiac exam with no murmurs, rubs, or gallops, and the pulmonary exam showed no wheezing or whispered pectoriloquy. These documentation inaccuracies, while amusing, truly are a source of potential liability and ultimately detract from our ability to find the important information contained within a note.

Fundamentally, medical notes are written to document what occurred during a patient visit. They should allow the physician to recall what happened at the visit, whether the patient follows up in a day, a week, or 3 years later. They also need to communicate the details of the visit to any other clinician who may see the patient at some point in the future.

In recent decades, notes also have become the sole evidence required to justify physician charges. To bill at a certain rate, a physician must document a minimum amount of information, including a specific number of elements in the review of systems and the physical exam. Recognizing that compliance with billing requirements is an important goal of clinicians, many EHRs have made it too easy to “bloat” a note by including reams of irrelevant information – thereby making it difficult to find the important information the note was intended to communicate in the first place.

Notes from some EHRs remind us of the Wendy’s commercial from the 1980s: They force us to ask, “Where’s the beef?”

This is because many EHR implementations rely on default settings. These maximize documentation for billing but unfortunately leave the “beef” (in our case, the real information relevant to patient care) buried in lines of irrelevant, specious, and sometimes downright fictitious information.

We can do better. Virtually every EHR currently in use allows clinicians to customize fields so that notes can be easily written to reflect the realities of our differing practices.

Put more simply, you really can (and should) have a review of systems that is relevant to what you do.

If you always ask about chest pain, difficulty breathing, and abdominal pain, you can include negative responses to those questions with one click and then add in any positive aspects the patient may report. If you are seeing a patient with asthma and you generally ask the same questions – exacerbations in the last month, frequency of the use of albuterol, nighttime awakenings, symptoms with exercise, etc. – most EHR systems will allow you to set up the record to populate an asthma review of systems that includes defined responses you can individualize for each patient.

Electronic documentation of the physical exam also should reflect the examination that you routinely do by default. Then you can make simple changes to adapt your personalized predefined settings and correctly reflect what occurred with each patient.

For that same asthma patient, the physical exam should give the details of the heart and lung exam but should not include any mention of an abdominal exam unless one was actually done. A current high-quality EHR also should populate the appropriate physical exam areas with one click of a button.

It has been more than 3 years since the majority of practices transitioned to electronic health records, but we still see far too many clinicians struggling with systems and describing data that reflect things they have not done, all due to the use of default settings that have never been changed. It is important to understand how to customize your EHR to meet your needs and to make the individual efforts required to learn how to effectively use the current instruments of our craft.

As for whispered pectoriloquy, it is the increased loudness of a whispered word heard on auscultation over an area of lung consolidation. It is similar to tactile fremitus, where consolidation is noted by the vibratory feel in your hand placed on the chest of a patient. It should be a very rare event in our day and age that any description of whispered pectoriloquy should sneak its way into our record, particularly for a urology visit.

Dr. Notte is a family physician and clinical informaticist for Abington (Pa.) Memorial Hospital. He is 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 Memorial Hospital and professor of family and community medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia.