I’ve had a crazy couple of weeks working on a big project that finally reached a major milestone. Now I feel like I’m operating in a bit of a vacuum. I’m taking a break from the clinical trenches for a while and will be doing some traveling.
I have to admit that I feel a little guilty about having a couple of weeks where I’m not operating under multiple timelines. I do pretty well with work-life balance, keeping track of how many hours I actually work compared to my capacity. It started as a way to make sure I could stay afloat financially without an actual employer, but I discovered it was also a reflection of how much non-productive time I had so that I could better reflect on what I was doing with that time.
When I applied for medical school, the majority of applicants went straight through from their undergraduate institutions to medical school. There were a handful of people in my college class who did research or something else for a year before applying, but often that was because they weren’t sure they wanted to go to medical school. The students I work with now typically take at least a year off between college and medical school applications. Many are doing research or looking for ways to distinguish themselves from the growing pool of applicants. Others are studying and prepping for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) that they didn’t take as undergrads because they didn’t feel they had enough time to study. Still more are taking post-baccalaureate courses to make themselves look more competitive.
Most of my scribes fall into the “study and prep” group. We’ve had some thoughtful discussions about what it was like back in my day (I never thought I’d be saying that, but here I am) versus how it is for them now. Initially, I thought that having time before they went to medical school might make them more rounded and less stressed when they finally got there, but I’m finding that the extra year or two might be adding to the overall stress level as admissions become more competitive.
Many other things have changed in medical education. For example, work hour limits and other protections that were designed to try to make the process more humane for learners. Additionally, students are much more digitally enabled and technology savvy than we were when I was in school. I wonder what kind of impact the combination of changes will have on physician burnout down the line. Will they see the EHR and other systems more as tools or mere annoyances rather than as their arch enemies? Will technology be able to evolve with their expectations?
Expectations are so important when we consider how we perceive things. I recently had a phone interview with a potential clinical employer. He’s someone I know from a past employer and perhaps that made him a little too comfortable as we were chatting. He made some comments about some of the other candidates he had passed on interviewing, generally around what he considered a relative lack of work ethic compared to physicians of his age group. I’m a little younger than him training-wise, but not much.
I was floored by the fact that he was only offering two weeks of vacation plus three days of continuing education for his potential new partner, regardless of their experience. In our area, most of the health systems are offering new grads three weeks of vacation plus a full week of continuing ed time. He seemed unaware of the competition’s benefits, which again had me thinking about expectations and how they influence our thinking.
It was in that frame of mind that I read the recent JAMIA article on metrics for assessing physician activity using EHR log data. The authors believe that reporting standardized efficiency measures would help experts understand the environments in which physicians practice. I don’t disagree that data is important, but it doesn’t take into account data about the practice patterns that physicians had before and to which they continuously compare their current experience, whether consciously or unconsciously. We don’t have many measures of total charting / message time for each eight hours of scheduled patient time, except in practices that were forward-thinking and performed time studies and optimization exercises.
I’ve done operational efficiency projects for the better part of a decade, whether as part of an employed CMIO role or as a consultant. Many of the measures that the authors hope to manage are often best addressed by non-technology solutions. These have been around a long time, but practices continue to be resistant to implementing them:
- Time spent prescribing and managing refills. I still see physicians who only prescribe medications a month at a time, or who won’t even give enough refills through the next anticipated office visit. Experts have long advised year-long refills for stable patients, yet this is still a struggle for many. I also see people unwilling to delegate refill authority to other clinicians, insisting on reviewing each request themselves.
- Inbox time per eight hours of scheduled patient time. This is another area where operational issues can have an impact. Is the inbox overloaded because patients want appointments and can’t get them? Is the schedule double booked, or has the practice taken steps to manage its panel size so that those who want appointments can get them and aren’t forced to leave or send messages? Does the inbox contain remote patient monitoring information that could be handled by ancillary team members?
- Time spent writing notes. I often see physicians who used paper templates or dictation macros in the paper / dictation world who won’t spend the time to create provider-specific defaults or templates within their EHR. I still do not understand why it is so difficult to convince these providers that spending a little time will benefit them later.
Even though we may not have data on legacy work patterns, the authors pose some excellent research questions that are important for future research, including the impact of staffing ratios on various endpoints. They also note challenges with implementation of the measurements, including EHR idle time-outs, variable definitions of “work outside of work,” and the variability of prep work done prior to clinic sessions. They also noted that not all work is done in the EHR – clinicians spend time on the phone with patients and colleagues, have family meetings, complete FMLA and other paperwork, and otherwise interact with patients and the care team.
The authors are careful to note that data capture may lead to “unintended negative consequences” as physicians change their behaviors because they are being monitored. Perhaps they will write briefer notes or otherwise be less comprehensive than they might otherwise have been because they will be concerned about the appearance of inefficiency. They also are clear that they “do not suggest that these new measures be included as requirements in any federal reporting programs.”
As much as quantitative research is important, I’d love to see a greater focus on qualitative research with regards to clinicians’ perceptions and expectations. Do their past experiences and biases inordinately impact their use of technology? What level of impact do other forces have, such as documentation requirements, payer constraints on diagnostics and treatment, and government regulations? How much do various stressors impact our performance and our level of compassion for our patients? It would take time and resources to examine these questions.
What do you think about standardized metrics for assessing physician EHR activity? Leave a comment or email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.