Paperwork causes unintended distractions for physicians and nurses

I admittedly snorted out loud when I read a New York Times article recently regarding increased physician distraction due to electronic devices, especially with the advent of the smartphone with its emails, text messages, calls, and other alerts that ping intermittently throughout a typical work day.

There is no question that electronic devices distract physicians as the article pointed out. But that’s like complaining about a leaky faucet when there’s a flooded basement and a hole in the roof.

The bigger problem that should be mentioned is hospital bureaucracy which probably creates just as much if not more unintended distractions for physicians and nurses.

What many patients and lay public may not realize is that there is a ton of paperwork that goes into the care of a patient. Regulatory bodies like the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) that accredits hospitals have made it mandatory in many cases though I suspect hospital administration often carries it a step above and beyond what is truly necessary.

What all this “mandatory” paperwork means is that nurses are calling physicians all the time just so they can check a box on a form, and there are a lot of boxes to check.

Take a simple ear tube placement. A procedure that takes about 1-2 minutes to perform under sedation in the pediatric population.

It takes about 15-20 minutes to fill out all the nursing and physician forms (whether paper or electronic medical records). When the surgery actually begins, the nurse is too busy filling out even more forms rather than paying attention to the surgery.  And when the surgery is already over, the nurse is still busy filling out forms.

Talk about distraction — a registered nurse has been relegated to being a mere secretary rather than helping (or paying attention) in the care of a patient.

I recently asked a nurse how much time they spent on actual patient care versus how much time filling out forms during a typical shift.

It saddened my heart when I was told 60-70% of a nurse’s time is spent on filling out forms and only 30-40% on actual patient care. This time disparity was not always true in years past.

Ask any physician how many times they get called during a typical day because some form or paperwork was not completed or needs completion or just remind to get it completed by nurses who themselves are the main individuals who suffer under the crush of mandatory documentation in a hospital setting.

It is irritating to say the least to get a phone call during the middle of an operation, say, dissecting a tumor off the facial nerve during a parotid cancer resection, by someone who wanted to remind me to sign off on a medication list on a patient I’ve already provided prescriptions for.

Another classic experience of mine was when the anesthesiologist had trouble intubating a patient who started to suffer a severe lack of oxygen. I was immediately called to the bedside and performed an emergency tracheostomy.

Of course, the nurse involved in the case immediately instructed me to stop performing the trach and to get consent as per the regulations. Heaven forbid we now can’t check that little box that states “consent obtained prior to surgery.” But in the interest of patient care, I did suggest that it would be better if the patient lived with an unconsented trach rather than die due to time spent obtaining consent.

Though electronic devices may be considered a “distraction” analogous to a mosquito buzz that comes and goes, one must not forget the avalanche of paperwork which is a much more pervasive and insidious distraction that deliberately takes attention away from the care of the patient. I understand the need for documentation, but at some point when the documentation itself dominates the majority of heathcare rather than the actual administration of care, there’s something fundamentally wrong going on.

It’s probably why medical missions are so gratifying to participating nurses and physicians, where 90%+ of the time is in actual patient care.

-Christopher Chang is an otolaryngologist who blogs at Fauquier ENT Consultants blog.

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