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Readers Write: Uncovering the Unexplored Role and Benefits of Clinical Data Abstraction

July 1, 2013 Readers Write 1 Comment

Uncovering the Unexplored Role and Benefits of Clinical Data Abstraction
By George Abatjoglou

7-1-2013 8-35-33 PM

With the industry’s move to electronic health records (EHRs), healthcare information management (HIM) professionals as well as RNs must play a guiding role through implementation and beyond, seeking processes and solutions to manage the conversion of enormous amounts of historical health information into meaningful, structured data. One helpful and often underexplored strategy for getting organizations up and running smoothly on an EHR involves pre-go live clinical data abstraction.

Historically, clinical data abstraction has been used to retrieve meaningful information that exists in unstructured formats – paper or otherwise – to fill in the “holes” in the electronic chart. Typically, this occurs so an organization can perform better financial or quality reporting. However, with the current push to implement EHRs within the ambulatory setting under Meaningful Use, healthcare organizations often underutilize or completely overlook using clinical data abstraction as a strategy for jump starting the EHR rollout process. In short, by populating EHRs with these details from paper charts and unstructured legacy EHRs before organization-wide rollout, physician practices to health systems and ACOs can reap EHR benefits more quickly, while ensuring more optimal data quality and integrity.

Whether patient records are electronic or paper-based, most contain “legacy” health information that requires someone to pluck relevant data from unstructured content and incorporate it in a structured, representative history in the EHR. While you may think it sounds like copying and pasting, the medical and scientific nature of the information makes this more complicated than it seems. In other words, clinical abstraction, when done well, is best left to the experts, including trained and credentialed HIM professionals and RNs who are consistently focused on clinical data integrity in their day-to-day roles.

With practice makes perfect, and experts in this arena are skilled magicians at identifying and pulling nuggets of information that will provide practitioners with the most valuable details moving forward, especially from a continuity of care perspective. Moreover, these individuals understand data in a broader way than a coder might, and as a result, take into consideration different clinical components that shape the picture of a person’s whole health as they mine critical details for the new EHR.

Leveraging clinical data abstraction as a strategic step in EHR population can take two forms.

  • Existing resources. Healthcare organizations can facilitate the effort themselves by using staff clinicians and/or hiring additional nurses, medical assistants or students to abstract clinical data.
  • Outsourcing. Other healthcare organizations work with partners who embed clinical experts within the organization to facilitate the process.

Although it’s feasible for smaller healthcare organizations—community hospitals, critical access hospitals, and small practices, for example—to abstract and manage data internally, clinical data abstraction becomes increasingly complicated for larger physician groups and health systems that provide care to hundreds if not thousands of patients in a given day. When these large systems try to enlist internal staff to conduct data abstraction and enter historical data into EHRs, they are likely to run into roadblocks.

For example, relying on internal resources for data abstraction will further decrease the productivity of clinicians and HIM professionals already diminished by an EHR implementation and preparing for the ICD-10 deadline. Clinicians typically decrease the number of patients seen during the EHR implementation period in order to adjust to the new workflows demanded by the technology. A physician who normally sees 20 patients per day may need to decrease patient appointments to 12 per day and gradually work back to a normal activity level after several months. If paired with abstraction responsibilities as well, the productivity decline is often viewed as too steep.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, using internal resources also can lead to the generation of even more non-standard, unstructured data. With patient care being the top priority for clinicians, abstracting clinical data and entering historical information may not always be executed in the same way as a full-time abstractor whose sole focus is on that one task, guided by standardization across every record. While some data is better than none, the benefits of unstructured data within an EHR are not much different than working with paper-based records, which defeats the value of EHR implementation.

An EHR implementation can only be as successful as the quality of its data. As the saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out.” Regardless of an organization’s decision to use internal or external resources, clinical data abstraction overseen by seasoned HIM professionals and supplemented by knowledgeable RNs offers several benefits—some of which are more heavily weighted in the interest of utilizing outside consultants:

  • Improved data integrity. As healthcare organizations go live with EHRs, data need to be organized in a structured and sustainable format to provide consistent core medical content for clinicians across all patient records.
  • Increased patient safety. When data consistently and accurately reflect patient conditions in a streamlined, structured format, EHRs become easier to navigate from a decision-making and care management perspective, contributing to increased patient safety and care quality.
  • Enhanced productivity and satisfaction. By relying on outside experts rather than tapping internal resources to abstract and enter historical data, clinicians’ time is maximized and remains focused on providing patient care, while internal HIM professionals are able to focus on other mission-critical tasks like ICD-10 training.
  • Better patient experience. Tasking clinicians to enter data does not add value to the delivery of care, nor does it contribute to the clinician–patient interaction. Unfortunately, with the learning-curve that often accompanies EHR implementation, a patient appointment can become rather data-driven and impersonal if clinicians spend more time looking at the computer screen than their patients. Using data abstraction experts allows physicians to maintain a positive “human” interaction with the patient, a critical component to meeting patient expectations.
  • Higher return on investment. No matter who facilitates it, there is an absolute cost associated with abstracting clinical data. Outsourcing the process does carry an initial expense, which may then be recouped by physicians’ sustaining their activity loads. On the other hand, revenue lost through decreased provider productivity when clinicians are tasked with performing data abstraction may not be regained. Cultivated by the improved patient experience, outsourcing the clinical data abstraction effort may also lead to additional gains such as practice expansion and patient retention.

The number of provider choices for patients is multiplying and steering healthcare into a more consumer-driven model. The healthcare organizations that thrive into the future will be the ones that safeguard data integrity and use it to streamline the physician/patient interaction. Tapping into the data management expertise of HIM professionals in particular and using clinical data abstraction to improve data quality, patient safety, and clinician productivity is one key to providing a positive experience for patients and clinicians alike – both throughout and beyond an EHR implementation.


George Abatjoglou is CEO of IOD.

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Currently there is "1 comment" on this Article:

  1. “Enhanced productivity and satisfaction. By relying on outside experts rather than tapping internal resources to abstract and enter historical data, clinicians’ time is maximized and remains focused on providing patient care, while internal HIM professionals are able to focus on other mission-critical tasks like ICD-10 training.”

    Also, an abstraction effort serves as a benchmark, contributing to the perception of added value from EHR.







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