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The Skeptical Convert 8/7/13

The Curmudgeonly Diatribe

One reaction to the penetration of digital technology into medical practice is a type of editorial I hereby term the “curmudgeonly diatribe.” As the name suggests, it’s written by a senior practitioner who is displeased with something — or maybe everything — about the electronic medical record. The prototype is a JAMA piece  "Cut and Paste" but less clever examples have been appearing intermittently over the years. (My own experimental fiction trying to illustrate rather than just complain received mixed reviews).   

The latest such effort  was noted by Mr. HIStalk a few weeks ago, and it goes over ground much covered before (you can read part of it here). It’s well written enough, and not wrong on many specific factual statements, although I think it takes some cheap shots about distracting minutiae in EMRs that should in my view be minute enough to ignore.

But the main thrust of the article stems from a deep appreciation for a literary style of medical recordkeeping that the author remembers from back in his youth. He ends by making a plea for preservation of the kind of nuance an experienced clinician can bring to a case, as well as some sort of separation of what he sees as “the clinical record” from all of the data that clutter up the screen. 

OK, well whether the author may choose to claim curmudgeon status or not, I do, and I share his appreciation of nuance in medicine, especially in the context of evaluation of difficult diagnostic problems. And it’s true–the process of organizing a structured written report does help to organize and direct your thinking toward better conclusions. 

But it’s been obvious for decades that medical information had to be computerized in some way, and it’s obvious that much of the data in the medical record is granular enough to be collated and organized into database format. We had to have some sort of on-screen product. So here’s this big piece of complex software. And you don’t like things about it. You can imagine something better. OK, design it. 

Oh, but that’s not what you’re good at. The fact is that in medicine we’re mentally focused on discovering existing structures, not on creating new ones. Which is why big change in medicine tends to come from outside the clinical confines of the profession, either from basic scientific discoveries or new technological tools.  

And when we do change our internal structures, it tends to be by a gradual — well, gotta call it evolution — rather than wholesale redesign. The whole idea of laying out a new intellectual environment for ourselves has been problematic, not just because we aren’t trained in it, but at a basic intellectual level. We have to accept what our own methodology has done to us.

So outsiders had to design for us. And there’s a lot we don’t like about what we’ve got  But obviously there’s going to be improvement and redesign going on for the indefinite future, and input from specialty users will be critical.  

So sure, complain, but look ahead. And in the mean time, if you like to write and have language skills, there’s a lot you can do right now to improve things. Text is still critically needed –people will pick out coherent narrative and pay attention to it. Write good text, but get it in the system where people will read it. If that means reorganizing your traditional H&P format, APSO style, do it. 

But pay attention to the advantages the computer brings. You may not like the way it organizes things, but it sure does do it consistently. And what it organizes best is lists. You may not want to use them, but others will, and the experts have to police their accuracy. There are things you know that other people don’t. If you know that generic cardiac arrhythmia problem on the list  is WPW, change it.

But stop kidding yourself about the good old days. Back then any hospital had some talented people whose reports were incisive and informative. And a lot of others who just went through the motions. It’s just the same now. But at least now I can read what they are or aren’t saying. 

You can still be a curmudgeon. But be a useful one. Wow, good name for a column …

Robert D. Lafsky, MD is a gastroenterologist and internist in Lansdowne, VA.