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Readers Write: In Defense of Copy-Forward

January 28, 2013 Readers Write 5 Comments

In Defense of Copy-Forward
By Lyle Berkowitz, MD

1-28-2013 6-34-06 PM

I’m part of the Association of Medical Directors of Clinical Information Systems (AMDIS), a group of 2,000+ physicians who are the experts in implementing and using EMRs. We have a pretty lively listserv discussion board, and I enjoy seeing what my colleagues are thinking, as well as posting my own thoughts. I especially enjoy posting when I feel like certain studies or comments by non-clinical researchers, administrators, or politicians make us start to question common sense.

One of my favorite topics recently came up — the fear and horror associated with actually reusing some of a previous note. This usually falls into the concept of "Copy-Forward" (when you copy forward the whole note and then edit for today’s visit), or "Copy-Paste" (when you select certain parts of a past note and just copy that part of it. I posted my reply and thought I’d share and expand a bit.

So as not to bury the lead, I think Copy-Forward of a note is a great tool and supports both efficiency and quality, when used appropriately. Turning it off is a classic throwing the baby out with the bathwater analogy. To clarify my biases, my thoughts and ideas are mainly from the perspective of an outpatient physician using Copy-Forward over the past decade, but much of this certainly can be applied to the inpatient world in various ways.

Also, the use of Copy-Paste has some similarities to Copy-Forward, but I agree Copy-Paste is not nearly as efficient and poses more quality issues since it does not have the automatic updating features you might see with Copy-Forward. Here are the points I would suggest we consider.

First, I am sick of these reports which say that things like, "We used plagiarism software to show that 60-80 percent of a doctor’s note is the same as their last one." Um, of course! Since when did progress notes become creative writing endeavors about coming up with different ways to document diabetes, hypertension, and obesity in the same patient visit after visit?

The creative parts of doctoring should involve being "House": figuring out the diagnosis, figuring out the best treatment plan, and artfully explaining it all to the patient. It should not be writing Edgar Allen Poe-like short stories to amuse our auditors or confuse our colleagues. Although, it could be fun, hmmm… what if I described a diabetic’s problems with hypoglycemia in Poe’s style: "Arousing from the most profound of slumbers (due to a glucose of 45), the patient states he feels as if he was in a gossamer web of some dream. Yet in a second afterward, so frail may that web have been, he claims to not remember that which he was dreaming."

Second, there are obvious efficiency benefits to Copy-Forward, but there are very real quality benefits as well. The most obvious is that this type of workflow makes it less likely that important diagnoses will be missed or forgotten over time. Additionally, many systems update certain pieces of data during the Copy-Forward process, so that you can see the most recent results (discussed more below). Obviously incorrect information can be duplicated, especially when a note is being authored by multiple providers over time, but this is where good training and leadership are needed to ensure every provider feels fully responsible for everything in their notes.

Third, getting rid of Copy-Forward or even Copy-Paste is certainly overkill, but we do need to use some common sense in designing technology, workflows, and processes that make it easy to do the right thing when documenting. In the ideal system, much of the critical data would either be updated automatically (e.g. the most recent lab would appear when a note is copied forward), or the system would date entries so it is clear what was done in the past versus today. To clarify, let me break down how an ideal progress note might look like when Copy-Forward is used:

Allergies, Meds, Problems

These update automatically, which is great, and means the note has the most recent data. I would hope all EMRs have this functionality already.

Past Histories (Social, Surgical, Family)

These copy forward and allow for easy editing in the note. Ideally, they could be managed in a widget external to the note and have them update from those profiles as well.

Physical Exam

Want to ideally be able to view old physical exams, and even reuse them when desired (except for vitals). In my current system, the full exam (sans vitals) does copy forward. So I usually just delete it and drop in a new macro and edit that. However, some patients have findings I want to compare from last time (e.g. size of a rash), or consistent findings (e.g. murmur) which I want to be reminded about


For labs (e.g. CBC, chem, chol profile) and certain studies (e.g. mammogram results, last ECG), we use macros which "auto-updatem" so when a note is copied forward, they update automatically to the most recent dates and values.


As some have heard me detail before, I use a form of "problem-oriented charting" in which I type out the history, impression, and plan for a diagnosis (e.g. diabetes) or system/problem area (e.g. "GI issues") all on one line. I also use a macro which includes the date of the entry and my initials.

  • Example for a diabetic patient. "01/19/13(LLB): Stable on Metformin 500bid, CS 100-120s before meals, no med side effects or other complaints. Impr: Stable DM, PLAN: CPM, labs, rtc 4 mos". No flourish is needed. The result is that when copied forward I can see the last time I addressed the DM and if I made any changes. In the same "area" for the problem, I would also have a list of relevant meds, labs, and testing results (e.g. ECGs and ECHOs for hypertension). This way I can see everything I need about a problem all in once place – which means I can make quicker and more accurate decisions.
  • Summarizing old entries over time. I will either retain the old entry, or can summarize over time (e.g. I might take four entries from 2012 and summarize into one line such as, "2012: Dx with DM 4/12, added Metformin 500qd, 6/12 incr to 500 bid and did well").
  • Multiple issues. Since I often address multiple issues in a given visit, I created a line which reads, "Problems below not addressed this visit" so that I can clearly demarcate what I did and did not address on a certain day. I think this method is extremely efficient and higher quality than the method of trying to document all the HPI about multiple issues at the top of a note, and then separating out the Impr/Plan at the bottom.
  • What is a SOAP note? Larry Weed, MD devised the concept of problem-oriented charting 50 years ago, but I think it’s fair to say we have over-complicated it over time. The SOAP note is supposed to be based around a problem. In other words, each problem should have a documentation area for Subjective, Objective, Assessment and Plan. Instead, we create one large SOAP note where we break away all the Subjectives into their own paragraph ("HPI"), thereby distancing your thinking about the complaint and what we are going to do about it. I hope we will soon see more EMRs going "back to the future" by embracing the true problem oriented charting philosophy.

Fourth, the outpatient world is different from inpatient, but there are similarities. I understand that inpatient notes can be more difficult to manage due to quickly changing problems, and especially multiple authors. Personally, I hope we put some more thought into the concept of an "Inpatient Wiki," a single type of inpatient note that can automatically pull in the relevant information for each specialty (e.g. different for medicine, OB, and various types of surgery). Then each author could see what they need to see – it would pull in the labs, tests, consult suggestions, or a nursing note – why make the doctor repeat this themselves every time?

The care provider would then be prompted to write what they are supposed to add, and the note would be a living document which flexes to the individual, but can be time-stamped for medico-legal purposes as well. It could have clear sections (similar to above), as well as an organ or system based areas (e.g. Cardiology issues, GI Issues, Neuro Issues, F/E/N issues) for documenting the SOAP note .

In summary, I would go as far as to say that we need to change our paradigm to "The Note is the Chart." The chart should no longer be a collection of distinct and incomplete notes, but rather the last note can really be the complete chart which contains everything a provider needs. If we do this, then we can reframe our expected workflow from, "You need to read every note ever written to understand the full patient" to, "You just need to read the last note".

The result: when a patient goes to the ER or sees another doc, those providers will find that the most recent note in the system will have all the info they need, so they won’t need to try and dig through 48 notes over 10 years (and let’s face it, they never do that anyway). Granted, the paper record allowed for a much easier way to flip thru past notes, but sooner or later we have to acknowledge that computerized systems have different attributes than paper. We can either keep trying to force the computer to act like paper, which never works out well, or we can start embracing the differences and truly take advantage of them.

Lyle Berkowitz, MD, FACP, FHIMSS is associate chief medical officer of innovation for Northwestern Memorial Hospital; medical director of IT and innovation for Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group; and co-founder and chairman of healthfinch.

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Currently there are "5 comments" on this Article:

  1. Copy forward is a great function if used appropriately. But especially EMR’s in hospital settings can be a tempting place to “increase” productivity. Physical assessments are copied routinely during the day, most of the time correctly.The note function in assessment columns is a good way to keep folks honest. Often overlooked or ignored, the small notes are not easily noticed. Linking a small note (in CT) to a slightly higher HR or BP works well. It is often surprising how often patients go to the CT simply because that note keeps getting copied. You have to own your own practice and call people out for cheating and essentially wrong charting. If a positive culture is present, copy forward can help. But there is not much room for error.

  2. It seems that one way to address some of the concerns about Copy-Forward is to have at least a checkbox for each paragraph or section to indicate that the provider reviewed it. This would only be needed if the section wasn’t edited; editing would be considered evidence that the section was reviewed. But it would be good to know that a copied section at least got minimal scrutiny.

  3. Below is my recent Radiology Test Result IMPRESSIONS performed at a prestigious outpatient clinic using the RIS module of today’s most popular EMR for health systems:

    1) XR Hand 3 or More Views RIGHT

    Moderate to severe degenerative arthropathy of all DIP joints, joint space narrowing and juxta-articular spurring, most pronounced in the right second and fifth.

    Moderate degenerative arthropathy of the first CMC joint with joint space narrowing, spurring and subchondral cyst formation, also.

    No erosions to suggest inflammatory arthritis.

    2) XR Hand 3 or More Views LEFT

    Moderate to severe degenerative arthropathy of all DIP joints, joint space narrowing and juxta-articular spurring, most pronounced in the right second and fifth.

    Moderate degenerative arthropathy of the first CMC joint with joint space narrowing, spurring and subchondral cyst formation, also.

    No erosions to suggest inflammatory arthritis.

    Call this Copy-Forward or Copy-Paste — The point is that the IMPRESSION for my LEFT hand is inaccurate. And, I am fuming because not only did I have to pay out-of-pocket (my health plan’s deductible had not been met by mid-January 2013) for this sloppiness or “more efficient workflow” (depending on who’s the umpire), but because this LEFT hand result initially led to a disturbing outcome had I not called it to the attention of my rheumatologist!

    PS – The title of your post should have been: In Defense of Copy-Forward for the Most Recent Physician Note. Other digital medical record documentation (or portions of such), such as the Problem List, H & P, Consultation Report, Test Result Report, etc., do not always fit your argument.

  4. Thanks for the comments- I certainly agree that EMR documentation is far from perfect now (of course, hand-writing on paper documentation was even farther from perfect!). And that different situations (eg long-term continuous charting in the office clinic, inpatient charting by multiple authors, procedure charting in a high volume center, etc…) can and should be studied differently – and will likely need varying degrees of change to improve. I’ve continued thinking on all of this at a recent blog on teh subject: http://drlyle.blogspot.com/2013/01/in-defense-of-copy-forward_29.html

  5. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, after having been on the receiving end for many years, and I have had the opportunity over the course of the last four years to contribute to clinical content best practices through AHIMA, CCHIT, and my involvement working the EHR development front, in order to lessen the need to utilize copy and paste. The suggestions and approachs you recommend, in my experience can be more efficiently and effectively managed through the use of specialty/condition specific templates, verification of discrete data fields, best practice alerts etc., instead of rthe re-use of historical text that one can forget to update or customize to the patient being treated.

    The problem list is another opportunity to verify or update previously entered discrete data. Also, many EHRs can help to manage and build upon content entered during the stay to provide a great foundation for the Discharge Summary – if you reuse and update old content, it won’t get ported over correctly. Enter once and re-use many times is a great selling point to providers, and should lessen the temptation to copy and paste with all of the inherent risks and limitations. I appreciate all of the fantastic approaches to dealing with this vexing issue. I hope to see many of you at HIMSS.

    Cassi L. Birnbaum

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