Clinical documentation: composition or synthesis? [article]

By | October 24, 2012

A recent article in the Journal of American Informatics Association (JAMIA) takes a look at note-writing practices of medical residents while using an electronic health record (EHR) system. Through the use of time-and-motion studies the authors concluded that there was “a high level of fragmentation of documentation activities and frequent task transitions [when using an EHR].” Not really surprising when you consider that most EHR systems simply aren’t designed with the needs of the end user in mind. In addition it is difficult to use an electronic system in an attempt to mimic the act of taking notes using pen and paper. I’ve struggled with that for years. The thought process is different.

Clinical documentation: composition or synthesis?
Mamykina L, Vawdrey DK, Stetson PD, Zheng K, Hripcsak G.

Department of Biomedical Informatics, Columbia University, New York, USA.

OBJECTIVE: To understand the nature of emerging electronic documentation practices, disconnects  between documentation workflows and computing systems designed to support them, and ways to improve the design of electronic documentation systems.
MATERIALS AND METHODS: Time-and-motion study of resident physicians’ note-writing practices using a commercial electronic health record system that includes an electronic documentation module. The study was conducted in the general medicine unit of a large academic hospital.
RESULTS: During the study, 96 note-writing sessions by 11 resident physicians, resulting in close to 100 h of observations were seen. Seven of the 10 most common transitions between activities during note composition were between documenting, and gathering and reviewing patient data, and updating the plan of care.
DISCUSSION: The high frequency of transitions seen in the study suggested that clinical documentation is fundamentally a synthesis activity, in which clinicians review available patient data and summarize their impressions and judgments. At the same time, most electronic health record systems are optimized to support documentation as uninterrupted composition. This mismatch leads to fragmentation in clinical work, and results in inefficiencies and workarounds. In contrast, we propose that documentation can be best supported with tools that facilitate data exploration and search for relevant information, selective reading and annotation, and composition of a note as a temporal structure.
CONCLUSIONS: Time-and-motion study of clinicians’ electronic documentation practices revealed a high level of fragmentation of documentation activities and frequent task transitions. Treating documentation as synthesis rather than composition suggests new possibilities for supporting it more effectively with electronic systems.

J Am Med Inform Assoc. 2012 Nov 1;19(6):1025-31

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