Electronic health records changing the character of the family doctor

Because my doctor's trying, desperately, to commune with the infernal machine, he's losing his most valuable and unique attributes -- his bedside manner and his attention to patients.
Written by Denise Amrich, Contributor

I am incredibly fond of our family doctor. He's one of those old-school docs, who'll actually take time with you to discuss everything you need. He genuinely seems to care, and he'll never, ever rush you to get on with the next patient.

I love that. I haven't even minded spending a little more time in the waiting room, knowing that he's giving the patient he's currently with the same attention I'll receive when it's my turn. But it's also proven, recently, to be a bit more of a problem than it was in the past.

He's an old fashioned kind of guy. When you walk into his office, there's an ancient (from the 1960s) console TV in the corner, which serves as a table. Sitting on top of that is an only slightly less ancient portable TV (from the 1980s). That's been the extent of my doctor's office's technological prowess until recently.

I suppose he's seemed more curious about technology for the past two years or so. After all, at each visit he's sought my opinion on the newest smartphones. I thought he was just making conversation.

But now, our family doctor has discovered computers. My doctor -- like most doctors these days -- has decided that he needs to keep computerized records. For one thing, the paper records take up way too much space in his tiny office. My doctor now has a shiny new laptop that he rolls from examination room to examination room.

Lately, instead of having his full attention when I go in to see him, a good two-thirds of his attention is riveted to the screen. Instead of a considered response to a question, I often get a "Yeah" or an "Uh, huh," sometimes coupled with a mumble of some sort as he tries to find whatever he's trying to locate on the screen. It's hard to tell if he's even heard me.

I had a friend who used to sound exactly like my doc does nowadays. My friend would call me on the phone, and then only give me a fraction of his attention. His excuse was that he was killing Flood in Halo or raiding in World of Warcraft. Why did he call me to begin with? I guess he needed to multitask his boredom. That's what friends are for.

Because my doctor's trying, desperately, to commune with the infernal machine, he's losing his most valuable and unique attributes -- his bedside manner and his attention to patients. Forget about eye contact in 2012.

Worse, visits have ballooned in time. It is absolutely impossible to get to see him with less than a three hour round-trip committment. His office is only 15 minutes away, and the usual appointment used to take about an hour -- so I'd use up an hour and a half when visiting with him.

Now, it's three hours. No joke. It's a day killer. Even if I call ahead to be sure he's ready to see me, he's never, ever even close to on-time. For a guy who has historically always been a bit behind on his daily appointments, he's now incredibly behind. The computer is slowing him down. A lot.

Aren't computers supposed to be helping medical professionals do things more quickly and efficiently, and improve patient care?

I've cancelled appointments with my doctor when I realized I just couldn't take half a day off. The other day, I had to leave his office, after already waiting a really long time, because I had to get to another appointment.

To be honest, I couldn't tell you if his records are any better. Sometimes what's been recorded in the computer seems wrong. Sometimes, information is just not there, when I know we discussed it at the last appointment. When I ask him or his medical assistants or nurses about something, there's usually grumbling, a dive into the computer screen, and an expression of bafflement at the end. They ask the same questions about health history every time, so what's the point of the electronic record, anyhow? In any case, it's not helping this guy or his practice.

There's the rub of all this new-fangled computer technology for old-school country doctors. Sure, the theory is that it will help, but many of these professionals are really ill-prepared -- both in terms of their own skill, and in the way they've practiced medicine all these years -- for what electronic health records will do for their rhythm.

I'm sure younger doctors, doctors raised like the rest of today's kids -- with tiny screens surgically attached to their hands -- will be comfortable multitasking between the EHR screen and the patient. But the seasoned doctors, the professionals we cherish and trust, those guys are losing their way. They're losing some of their helpfulness. If they keep taking three hours per appointment, they're going to lose patients. There's a chance they might come up to speed someday, but who has the time to wait?

We need EHR, no doubt. However, there may be a price paid that's not measurable in dollars.

I kind of miss my old doctor, the one who was perpetually a little scattered, but didn't have his head in the computer. I felt safe with him. This guy, well, I just feel kind of annoyed and a little sad.

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