Practice Management

Designing a better EHR

Hospitals can create a more effective system


It’s well known that overuse is an enormous problem in medicine, and when it comes to antibiotics, the problem is even more striking.

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“Half of all inpatient antibiotic use is inappropriate,” says Valerie Vaughn, MD, MSc, a hospitalist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and coauthor of a BMJ editorial about EHRs and antibiotic overuse.

“This has led to an increase in antibiotic-related adverse events (~20% of all hospitalized patients on antibiotics), Clostridium difficile infections (half a million infections and 29,000 deaths in U.S. annually), and resistant bacteria (which now account for nearly 12% of all bacterial infections, costing $2.2 billion annually).”

EHRs can be a tool to combat that trend – if they are well designed. Clinicians are influenced by the design of their electronic health record, Dr. Vaughn said. “Rather than leave its influence to chance, we should capitalize on what is known about design to promote appropriate testing and treatment through the EHR.” Hospitalists – integral to quality improvement – can have a role in making these changes.

“These improvements will be the most effective if behavioral economics and nudging are considered while designing,” Dr. Vaughn said. “For example, when creating order sets, list recommended options first and when possible make them the default,” she said. “This little change will greatly improve appropriate use.”

For every hour physicians spend on direct patient care, they spend another two with the EHR, Dr. Vaughn wrote. “Given this degree of attention, it is not surprising that the EHR influences physician behavior, especially the overuse of low-value medical care. … Displaying brand-name instead of generic options leads to more expensive prescribing. Allowing labs to be ordered recurrently increases unnecessary phlebotomy. Even individually listing inappropriate antibiotics (rather than grouping them) can make them more noticeable, resulting in more broad-spectrum use.”

“All hospitalists – and humans – are affected by knee-jerk responses. One of the most common in medicine is the urge to treat a positive culture or any positive test. Recognize this urge and resist!” she said. “Antibiotics may be the correct response, but clinicians should first think about whether treatment is necessary based on that patient’s symptoms and comorbidities. Resist the knee-jerk urge to give antibiotics for every positive culture.”


Vaughn VM et al. Thoughtless design of the electronic health record drives overuse, but purposeful design can nudge improved patient care. BMJ Qual Saf. 24 Mar 2018. doi: 10.1136/bmjqs-2017-007578.

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