Friday, 2 September 2016

Supporting clinical decisions by physicians

Clinical decision support software can be invaluable in a triage service: it will remind staff of conditions that fit the symptoms a caller is describing and prompt them to ask the relevant questions to check on the possibilities, or propose sensible actions.

Isn’t that exactly what we want for doctors too? Shouldn’t they be prompted to consider all possible explanations of a patient’s condition? Might they not also need an occasional reminder?

Things, sadly, are not that simple. As long ago as 1999, the Journal of the American Medical Association carried an article on ‘Why don’t physicians follow clinical practice guidelines?’ They found a number of barriers to the use of guidelines (that’s guidelines in general, irrespective of whether they’re drawing on software support). They may not be aware of their existence. They may be put off by the sheer volume of guidelines out there. They may, quite simply, not have the time to consult them.

Systems should support delivery of patient care, not distract from it
That last objection is one I’ve heard from General Practitioners (family physicians) in Britain. On average, they have ten minutes for each patient consultation, which means the useful time is around seven and a half minutes. Pulling a book out to check on a guideline simply takes too high a proportion of the available time. “I would never consult a guideline,” one GP told me.

Most British GPs use a computerised system these days. Even then, though, they don’t want to have to call up their decision support system and work through it to see whether it has anything to suggest. “I don’t want to have to check my system to be told that a patient coughing blood needs to be checked for possible cancer. If I didn’t know that, I shouldn’t be in this job.”

They also don’t like it if their screen is full of popup alert windows. They need their screens to contain the information that’s useful to them. They don’t want it cluttered.

Despite all that, we all know that diagnoses are sometimes missed. Recently, it was announced that heart attacks are missed in one-third of British women who have had one. Why? Because it’s with men that physicians first think of heart attacks. With women patients, the first thought is much more likely to be cancer. That’s despite the fact that experts point out that women are as likely to suffer a heart attack as men are.

So what’s the answer for a clinical decision support supplier?

First of all, although there does have to be an alert to doctors concerning the presence of decision support information, it needs to be discreet – it mustn’t take up too much space on screen. It just has to be eye-catching enough for the physician, whether a GP or in a hospital, to realise that the system has something to suggest. He or she can then choose to consult it.

Secondly, once the physician has gone into the decision support system, it should not require him or her to select a specific pathway – say lung cancer rather than congestive obstructive pulmonary disease. Instead it should be assembling the symptoms and findings already recorded and, if they are compatible with either condition, propose further questions to ask, or tests to carry out, in order to eliminate one or other of the possibilities.

Thirdly, it has to be constructed to as to save the physician time, not cost more. So as well as supporting the clinical decision, it should also support the process itself. For example, for a GP, does a letter have to be produced for a referral to hospital care? Then the system should produce it. That way the physician doesn’t have to flick between systems and, if anything, the use of it will save time that can be used for the consultation itself, listening to the patient or providing advice.

What does that all mean? That there is indeed a vital role for a clinical decision support system to play in supporting physicians. But it needs to be highly intelligent in design, to ensure that while it benefits patients it does not do so by distracting physicians from their main purpose: helping in every way possible to alleviate suffering and reduce ill health.

That’s one of the most exciting and satisfying challenges that healthcare information work provides today.

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