How to improve data completion in EHRs by engaging patients

Photo of Ewa RukaPhoto of Aleksandra KwiecieńMultiple authors
April 28, 2021
... min read

Transferring patient documentation from paper to digital form has been a milestone achievement for the whole healthcare industry. After years of handwritten notes about each patient, electronic health records (EHRs) have improved multiple processes in healthcare. But is there a way to improve them further?
Sharing the responsibility with patients can be the first step to fully using the potential of electronic health records. Illustration by Aga Więckowska.

Human factor of EHRs performance

Existing EHRs proved to be helpful in many healthcare systems, however, there are several bottlenecks that reduce their full potential. The first of these is the human factor.

The technical implementation of innovation takes months, but it takes years to change what we, humans, get used to during the years of our education and practice. And this is not different in large healthcare organizations where EHR systems are usually only one of dozens of IT systems used. Combine that with the numerous procedures that medical staff are obliged to follow and the constantly changing landscape of legal requirements and you can see the challenge.

EHRs are primarily used by medical staff that are working on the front line with patients, often overburdened, and trying to keep good relations with stressed and often frustrated patients.

Furthermore, physicians have to use multiple digital systems during each visit, and not all of them work seamlessly - hence the frustration, lack of time, and overall tiredness. The healthcare industry is overflowed with administrative tasks, procedures, and gathering evidence. This itself is a good thing, however the balance between documentation and actual treatment is strongly disturbed.

According to research, physicians are spending even 24% of their time on administrative tasks. In such circumstances, completing the medical documentation manually becomes an irritating task and many of physicians or nurses can remain reluctant to adapt to EHRs.

How doctors can benefit from symptom checkers

Symptoms, risk factors, initial assessment - this is all that symptom checkers can deliver. How then doctors can use it to their benefit?

Technical perspective of data capturing for EHRs

The proper performance and reliability of EHRs rely on the completeness of data. These can be manually added by medical staff or imported from other systems used in a given healthcare facility. Unfortunately, these are not always compatible with one another, which is a known challenge of systems built separately, in a spread of time.

So, here again, users are working in a separate circulation of documents, often using copies and duplicates, where not only various departments are engaged, but also the patient who sometimes becomes a messenger. In the end, at the visit, physicians are challenged with learning the patients' story from the digital documents, physical files, and patients themselves.

Even though EHRs were designed to support healthcare professionals, combined with the every-day obstacles, they also weigh heavily on them.

Can you imagine any other balance of responsibilities? What if this task could be shared with other people?

The patient - a new player in the data collection process

No matter the case, there is always one person involved in the treatment process, and this person is a patient. The engagement of the patient is the key to the successful treatment process. It can also significantly improve the performance of EHRs and decrease the physicians' burden.

As we observe, patients are more often using digital tools to check up on their health and look for medical information. Over 70,000 people are using Google to learn about their symptoms every minute. This is often perceived negatively by healthcare representatives, but the same engagement that patients undergo when searching on the Internet can be transferred to reliable medical services with an appropriate digital gateway for patients

Role of symptom checkers in data collection

Looking at the recent growth of interest regarding symptom checkers, which was additionally increased by the pandemic, we can look for such a gateway in them. The popular tools for the initial assessment of symptoms are based on the information added by the patients. The same data can be transferred to electronic health records and turned into the up-to-date medical information necessary during any medical consultation.

This way, a patient has a chance to prepare for the visit in advance, the EHR is populated with data without the unnecessary engagement of medical staff, and physicians have access to all initial information about the patient at the beginning of the consultation. Having that, they can save time usually needed for a basic interview and focus on the further investigation of a patient's conditions, confirm evidence gathered by the symptom checker, ask the patient about any further changes, and propose adequate treatment.

The same pattern used consequently during future visits and follow ups allows us to update and build up the patient's records in time.

What’s also good here is that symptom checkers can be configured in a way to adapt to the protocols and standards used in the healthcare organization, and in consequence display patients information in a neat and synthesized form that they need.

Expanding patient data with an initial analysis

Symptom checkers have one more important feature that can strongly influence the patient journey and improve digital services offered in healthcare. It is their capacity to initially assess symptoms and present health and triage information.

This is key information that lets us propose the triage level, recommend a specialist, or even communication channel, all of which are essential for the proper management of patients using digital services. These pieces of information open the door to a variety of telehealth services, like booking appointments with a given specialist, chatting with doctors based on their current doubts, or having online visits. At the same time, they do not limit traditional visits and help route patients with acute symptoms to prompt help.

Of course, symptom-checking tools won't give the final diagnosis or replace physicians but what they can do is support clinical decisions. With the initial symptom assessment, we can direct patients to the right care, and doctors assessing their cases can use it to see other probable conditions.

From health services to health cooperation

Sharing the responsibility with patients can be the first step to fully using the potential of electronic health records and also improving healthcare in general. Working together benefits everyone. Patients are better prepared for the visit, while doctors are equipped with the initial information already in the system, requiring less paperwork during the visit, and the system is filled in with up-to-date records. All these elements make room for building an entirely new type of relationship between physicians and patients, which is based on cooperation.

Now, not only will doctors have more time for patients, but the patients would also have an independent tool to initially assess their symptoms, which would be shared with EHRs and open access to better-managed health services.

Adding a symptom checker to the existing system doesn't necessarily have to be difficult. Solutions, like Infermedica API, allow for integration through an API gateway and can be adapted to the data structures in the existing EHR system with the full flexibility of the features available within it.