My college freshman English professor told me: “You are not writing for yourself, you are writing for your reader. Always put the reader first.” It is a great message… and one that electronic medical records (EMRs) have made us totally forget. That professor would once a week have us critique an article by a particular reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer – our job was to completely tear it apart from the perspective of the reader. If he could get a hold of a single progress note from our hospital’s electronic medical record, he would have a enough material for an entire semester.

In a previous post, I mentioned that there are fundamentally 3 reasons to have a progress note:

  1. To communicate with other healthcare providers
  2. To provide documentation for medial-legal purposes
  3. To provide documentation for billing purposes

Electronic medical records make it really easy for us to document for billing but as a communication tool to other healthcare providers, they often fall woefully short. Our hospital uses the electronic medical record program, Epic. It is an incredibly powerful program that allows us to import all kinds of information into a progress note: lab test results, vital signs, past medical history, vaccination records, etc. As a physician, you can go wild with documentation – you can generate a 10-page note full of data just for an office visit note for a patient who comes in to get ear wax removed.

I’m on both the sending and the receiving end of electronic medical record progress notes. From other hospitals, I’ll get printed copies of notes mailed to me – pages and pages of data for a single office visit with a doctor who is co-managing the patient with me. From our own hospital, I’ll get notes from a colleague in a different specialty routed to my electronic medical record “Inbasket” and I’ll need to scroll through mounds of regurgitated data just to find the physician’s impression and plan.

But here’s the thing. If I’m treating the a person’s COPD, I don’t really need to know nor care about what their chloride level was in 2011 or the results of their last 6 normal EKGs. If I need that information, I can go to the lab or EKG section of the electronic medical record and I don’t need that information clogging up a progress note sent to me by another specialist seeing the patient for an unrelated problem.

The electronic medical record is a great documentation tool but we make it a poor communication tool.

Fear has taught us that more is better. If we include everything in the patient’s chart in our progress note, then surely we’ll get all of the right elements to withstand a Medicare billing audit. And shouldn’t we include every lab test the patient has had in the past 3 years just in case the person reading the note wants to see them? As a referring physician, I don’t really care about reading a consultant’s 11-point review of systems and re-statement of the patient’s family history since I already know this information and it is just a click away on the EMR if I need it. When it comes to really communicating in an EMR, less is usually more.

Don’t make the reader have to work to read your note.

There is a reason that we speak in sentences and that books are written using sentences. It is the most efficient way that we process the communications that are given to us. Tables and lists can help support the sentences but it takes a lot of time and brain energy to analyze tables and lists and in an EMR, most of them are just unnecessary fluff for the reader. When I get a communication from another doctor, what I really want to know is what their impression of the patient’s disease is and what they plan on doing about it. Sometimes that impression and plan is at the beginning of a long note of otherwise tabular documentation garbage, sometimes it is at the end, and sometimes it is in the middle – causing us to scroll up and down the notes trying to find out the information that we really want to know. The reader shouldn’t look at reading the progress note as a chore. The absolute best communications I get are from one of our surgeons who sends me a 1-paragraph letter saying what he thinks the patient’s problem is and what he is going to do about it. He communicates more in 2 sentences than most routed EMR notes communicate in 6 pages.

An inpatient progress note is often a communication to the outpatient physician.

My return outpatient visits are scheduled every 15 minutes. That means that when I see a patient in the office after a hospitalization, I have 15 minutes to review the record, talk to the patient, do an examination, order tests and medications, and complete my office note. I don’t have 7 or 8 minutes to spare to hunt through the recent inpatient chart to figure out what was going on with the patient and what I need to specifically follow up on. So I go to the last pulmonary consult note in the inpatient chart to see what pulmonary problem the patient was in with and what I need to be focusing on. If the patient needs a follow-up chest x-ray, or pulmonary function tests, or a decision about when to stop a pulmonary medication, I’m expecting that note to have that information. In this sense, the inpatient progress notes are not just a communication to the other physicians and practitioners seeing the patient in the hospital, they are also a communication with the outpatient physicians to insure a smooth transition from inpatient to outpatient care. Often, I’m both the pulmonary consultant in the hospital and the outpatient pulmonologist for a given patient and in this situation, my inpatient notes are notes to me and the nurse practitioner that I work with.

Don’t use a $25 word in a 25¢ sentence.

William F. Buckley was the conservative host of the TV show Firing Line and was famous for using 5 syllable words that he would pull from deep in the bowels of the English dictionary. He sounded extremely learned and intelligent but the average person couldn’t understand half of what he said. He used his extensive vocabulary like a weapon in political debates. That is great for entertainment but terrible for trying to communicate critical medical information to a wide audience of healthcare providers who will be reading your note. So don’t describe a person as macrosmatic, valetudinarian, or pauciloquent in an EMR note just because it showed up this morning on your “word of the day” app – no one else knows what it means any more than you did yesterday.

January 27, 2017