Copy and Paste Medical Records: A Tempting Shortcut with Perils for Patient Safety

Electronic medical records make it easy — too easy — to document that a doctor or nurse has performed a model examination of a patient. One click, and the empty slots fill in the results of a normal exam from head to toe. But was that thorough exam really done?

Copy and paste is another shortcut offered by electronic records that saves a lot of typing, but that can allow errors in a record to perpetuate from shift to shift and day to day. All it takes is a single mistake in, say, the past medical history taken of a patient when admitted to the hospital, and every other provider copies the error, with sometimes terrible results, as when the initial history taker, and then everyone else, misses an important disease that the patient has had.

An op-ed in the New York TImes highlights the downsides of electronic documentation. Leora Horwitz MD, a Yale medical professor and internist, says she wouldn’t go back to the bad old days of handwritten medical records, but the new electronic records carry some dangerous temptations for busy providers and also make care more expensive. Dr. Horwitz writes:

Of course, you shouldn’t click those buttons unless you have done the work. And I have many compulsively honest colleagues who wouldn’t dream of doing so. But physicians are not saints.

Hospitals received $1 billion more from Medicare in 2010 than they did in 2005. They say this is largely because electronic medical records have made it easier for doctors to document and be reimbursed for the real work that they do. That’s probably true to an extent. But I bet a lot of doctors have succumbed to the temptation of the click. Medicare thinks so too. This fall, the attorney general and secretary of health and human services warned the five major hospital associations that this kind of abuse would not be tolerated.

In short, reading the electronic chart has become a game of looking for a small needle of new information in a haystack of falsely comprehensive documentation and outdated, copied text. Why do we doctors do this to ourselves? Largely, it turns out, for the same reason most people do most things: money.

Doctors are paid not by how much time they spend with patients, how well they listen or how hard they think about what could be wrong, but by how much they write down.

Of course, when you have an honor system for how much a doctor is paid, the documentation requirement is a natural check-and-balance to make sure the time really was spent with the patient. Now we need a way to make sure that point-and-click medicine and copy-and-paste medicine really serve the patients’ interests.

This reinforces my advice to all patients: Read your own medical records. You may be surprised what you find there. You will always be educated, and sometimes you can catch flagrant errors, whether they are due to copy-and-paste issues or other problems. Last month’s newsletter has more on how to get and read your own medical records.

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