Electronic Medical Records (“EMRs”) are supposed to be a great step forward for patient safety. They are supposed to (among other things) automatically cross check medication orders with patient allergies, ensure that two medications don’t have harmful interactions, and allow multiple medical providers to quickly and easily have access to important health information about the patient.
Unfortunately, due to their clunky design, cumbersome requirements, and time consuming processes, they can distract doctors and nurses from the primary focus of tending to a patient, which endangers safety much more so than any old record system. EMRs are now a constant presence in patient rooms, requiring more time and attention than traditional paper records ever did. The result is less time and focus the doctor or nurse can devote to the patient.
In an opinion article written in the Wall Street Journal online, John Sotos recounts how his friend suffered in a large, well-respected university hospital as a result of distracted nurses. His friend, called Alex in the piece, was in the hospital for a fairly routine surgical procedure, but she was not permitted to eat or drink during her stay. I.V. fluids were supposed to replenish her body’s nourishment during her stay. He explained that three separate nurses, on three consecutive days, failed to correctly provide Alex with proper I.V. fluids – they provided no fluids on day 1, three times the required amount of fluids on day 2, and again no fluids on day 3.
While these oversights can be seen as unfortunately coincidences, he assigns blame to the EMR. In the old days of paper records, nurses would have opened the chart at the foot of Alex’s bed, looked at her fluid requirements and past orders, looked at the pole next to her bed, and acted accordingly.
“Today, nurses at Alex’s hospital are, almost literally, chained to a computer station with wheels that runs the EMR and goes with them from patient-room to patient-room,” he writes. “A basic nursing task, such as documenting a patient’s urination, requires the nurse to walk to the computer, sign on to the EMR (itself a chore), grasp the mouse, select the patient, click a “urination” tab (eventually), move hands to keyboard, type the volume of urine, then click “save.” Any new data, alerts or orders on the screen will distract the nurse from thinking about the significance of the urine volume just produced.”
Detecting Alex’s fluid mismanagement required only a glance at her, a glance at the I.V. pole next to her, and a modicum of thought. Obviously, the glances and thought didn’t happen… three times. That was likely because the nurses were distracted by having to spend that time entering information into a computer.
Thankfully, but for some temporary discomfort and having to page a doctor at 1 am to change a bandage (the excess day 2 fluids, combined with blood thinners, caused an inordinate amount of bleeding), Alex was ok. This is but one example how, with their attention spread more thin as a result of EMRs, doctors and nurses are prone to make more mistakes or become more easily distracted.