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Electronic Medical Records Holds Doctors Hostage

Which of the following events is most traumatic for a practicing physician?
  • Your staff doesn’t show up because the roads are flooded, but the waiting room is full of patients.
  • Medicare notifies you that coding discrepancies will result in an audit of 2 years of Medicare records.
  • You receive an offer of employment by a corporate medical institution who will bury your practice if you do not sign.
  • Your key expert witness defending you in your upcoming medical malpractice case is incarcerated.
  • Your office electronic medical records (EMR) system suffers a cardiac arrest.
Tough choices, I know. Our office lost complete access to EMR for 3 days, and it wasn’t pretty. I don’t grasp the technical (doubletalk) explanation for the temporary EMR coma, but we were reminded of how dependent we are on technology. Our IT gurus were working tirelessly, but their adversary was wily and formidable. Finally, they prevailed, but I wouldn’t regard this as a clean win for us. We were hobbling for 3 days. The fried server has been rebuilt and now has reinforcements to insulate against another crippling assault.

Ink and paper never crash.

Luckily, our brains were still functioning adequately during these 72 hours. We hadn’t yet lost the ability to obtain a medical history without pointing & clicking. Somehow, we managed to obtain a review of systems without trolling and scrolling across our laptop monitors. Ancient physician techniques, such as maintaining eye contact and offering nods of understanding to patients, were effortlessly recalled, like riding a bicycle. I even prepared a few paper prescriptions, once I was able to locate a yellowed and tattered prescription pad. I hope the pharmacies will accept these medical anachronisms.

The tough reality is that during these 3 days we had no records available for the patients we saw. We compensated when we could, with faxes and phone reports, but this is no substitute for a complete medical record. Patients arrived to review test results that we couldn’t access. In some cases, I had faxed biopsy reports available, but not the accompanying endoscopy operative reports that were hiding in the EMR black hole. Patients were understanding of our dilemma, since many had faced their own computer rages. But, many of them did not receive a full measure of medical services from us. I asked some to return to see me for another visit, once the EMR was resuscitated, as I feared I may have overlooked some important issue during the 3 days of Stone Age medicine.

Karl Marx

To paraphrase, the most famous phrase uttered by the individual pictured above, technology is the opium of the people. We love technology. We demand it. We upgrade it. And, we are hooked on it. Like any addiction, when the fix isn’t there for us, withdrawal is painful.

I’m thinking of opening the first chapter of Techno-Addicts Anonymous. Of course, the first step of recovery is the toughest. “My name is Whistleblower and I am a…”


  1. It is very likely that your patients got better care than when the computer ruled all.
    Looking at the patient seems to be a lost art. Listening dissapeared ages ago.

  2. Hi,
    I have been completely read it.
    That was very interesting.
    Medical Record Review

  3. There is a lot of unrealized potential in EMR's. I can't understand why their usability remains so frustratingly suboptimal - do these software companies ever talk to the docs who USE their product? Even just taking the best parts of several EMR's (e.g., PowerChart, CPRS, and EPIC) and putting them together would represent a huge step forward. On their own, I'm inclined to say that they all stink, to varying degrees and in different ways.

  4. My (ex)doc didn't know how to access past records. If it wasn't in his memory, the info ceased to exist. When I would remind him of my history, he would first get flustered with the computer and then angry with me. (He was in his late 30s. I might have expected that from an older doc.)

  5. Very unusual that a young physician is a computer clod. I think you can estimate a physician's age by his enthusiasm and skill with EMRs. Perhaps, he should hire is teenage kid as his office IT pro.

  6. This isn't a problem with the electronic medical records software. This is an issue of technology education. Servers may get fried, but data should be backed up and/or held in a cloud server. I realize EMRs are burgeoning, and we're in the middle of a learning curve. There are ways to ensure you do not have to go back to the "Stone Age" of medical documentation.

  7. Thanks for your comment, Joan. I hear your point. There are almost no physicians who believe that EMR has made their professional lives better. For most of us it is a series of hassles and frustrations that make us less efficient, despite its advantages. Until voice activation becomes operational and widespread, the quality of the templated consultions and progress notes is inferior. The systems are designed to streamline and expedite billing, coding and clinical documentation - not primarily to increase medical quality.

  8. Joan's comment is on the money. There are new ways like cloud services that can be used as a backup. Also, it will be important for healthcare training to evolve past just a point/click/type skill set. Great article, it was thought-provoking.

  9. Paper records DO CRASH. After hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, thousands of paper medical records in doctor's offices turned to mush in the flood waters. Many, many people have no medical records before 2005 to this day as a result of one-of-a-kind paper records disappearing that way. Electronic records are not going away and docs need to get over the righteous indignation.

    Docs managed to adapt just fine when electronic BILLING came along a few years ago.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. I love computer technology. I have two of my 3 computers running right now. I hate that it's insidiously horrible side has been forced on my physicians, my hospitals, and every other caregiver. I hate it so much that after every visit to a doctor I swear I am going to give up seeing them altogether. When I saw the last one, (they both always, always, mutter, I hate this thing" when turning to the computer) I was given a password with which to enter a portal and thus establish my own relationship with ......what? I asked why they want my records to be shared with a 3rd party, and was told that it isn't; the records only exist in the doc's office. Mmmmm...I have serious doubts, and I intend to follow up to find out for certain, because all but one of the medications listed are no longer being taken, but it doesn't reflect that. It's just a list. If I were to be hospitalized unconscious, and another physician finds it, would those no-longer-used meds be given? I shudder. I'm violently allergic to some of them. I have no control over what goes into those records. I don't feel free to have a private discussion with my doc anymore. I have hostile feelings about the sharing of my records with any third party, and most especially the government. We have been tattooed with a number, and we are no longer human beings. We are only computer-recorded entities who are controlled by clerks working for those to whom power is everything. I am old; when will I be sacrificed? The clerk will run the formula; am I too expensive now, and treatment thus denied? One day it will happen, and that is the day my world will end, "not with a bang, but a whimper". (Pardon my borrowing a quote for dramatic effect.) Atlas is not only shrugging, he is having a seizure.

    My now 3 year old granddaughter learned to use a tablet computer a full year ago. She swipes and scrolls until she can find her favorite Mickey Mouse videos at You Tube, but many doctors are computer illiterates who cannot use the truly terrible software that is required of them by a truly terrible healthcare system put in place by a truly terrible and unqualified team of incompetents. As Dr. Faasse said, there is unrealized potential in technology, but the EMRs are in need of euthanasia.


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