EHR Ease of Use is Not Easy
By Lee Farabaugh
Usability shows no signs of losing its luster as a buzzword in health IT. Coverage of a usability collaborative involving the efforts of the Electronic Health Record Association, the American Medical Association (AMA), and the American College of Physicians to improve user-centered design of EHRs in the context of the Meaningful Use program has certainly escalated. I
It’s no secret that EHR usability is, generally-speaking, pretty abysmal. There are standouts in the realm of interface design excellence – think of the award-winning PracticeFusion and athenahealth. But the overwhelming response to EHRs from the physician community is a groundswell of complaints over poor design, longer patient encounters, time-consuming documentation, and slow information retrieval response time.
The AMA recently published an article entitled “Improving Care: Priorities to Improve Electronic Health Record Usability” that identifies eight EHR usability principles, including supporting team-based care, promoting care coordination, and reducing cognitive workload through a user-centered design (UCD) approach. But even the AMA admits that while “some vendors have implemented user-centered design … their results have been inconsistent and many other vendors have not [even] implemented UCD.”
Apparently it’s not as simple as just applying the UCD process of user research, iterative design, and usability testing to the field of EHR design. Mary Kate Foley, VP of user experience at athenahealth, perhaps says it best: “Our industry has been talking about EHRs for years now, and if it were simple to make EHRs easy to use, we’d be done by now.”
EHR interface design is still subject to the design choices of individual interaction, visual, and user experience designers. While we’ve become used to the new flat UI convention on our iPhones, the vast majority of EHRs still look like snapshots from the past. In short, we don’t typically look to EHRs to be on the cutting edge, whether in terms of visual design conventions or adherence to UI design best practices.
The AMA calls for “the development of a common style guide – designed through collaboration between physicians and vendors – so physicians who practice in different care settings can move from one EHR to another.” But it’s not just physicians who stand to benefit. This type of common design framework frees organizations to make changes to their toolset because they don’t have to fear a steep learning curve for providers on a new interface.
How can we as designers support these efforts?
- Remember that EHR design affects not only physicians, but patients, too. Patient tools, while separate from the EHR itself, both push information to and pull information from the EHR, making patients de facto EHR users by default.
- Acknowledge existing efforts to reach a common design language in EHR interface design. Juhan Sonin, Jeff Belden, and Catherine Plaisant, among others, have created a nice start towards an EHR style guide for the industry at InspiredEHR.org. Their work includes medication lists, allergy lists, and drug alerts.
- Continue to push forward with additional design patterns. One area where common design vocabulary is needed is the patient banner. EHRs should employ common conventions for elements such as patient name, gender, date of birth, allergies, etc. that typically appear in this space, and balance information communication with respect for screen real estate.
- Educate our colleagues in industry about the importance of understanding and designing for the way real humans think and work. In my course on user-centered design for healthcare at UAB’s Masters Program in Health Informatics, my students (nurses, business analysts, and EHR vendors) are learning about how humans process information, think irrationally, and act according to behavior patterns that point the way towards more intuitive design.
EHR usability isn’t easy. It involves a complex interplay of care teams, workflows, the legacy of paper charts, and the promise of a design language we can all speak. But the need is real, and as the focus on “checking the box” for MU fades away, we’ll get down to the real business of not just using EHRs in a meaningful way, but in a delightful way.
Lee Farabaugh is chief experience officer at PointClear Solutions of Atlanta, GA.