AMA News: Dangers of "EHR Sloppy and Paste" - And Why Was An Informatics Expert Apparently For "Anecdotes" Before He Was Against Them?

In the AMA News an article by Kevin O'Reilly appeared entitled "EHRs: “Sloppy and paste” endures despite patient safety risk."

It addresses the dangers of a common feature of EHR's used recklessly:  copy-and-paste.

EHRs: “Sloppy and paste” endures despite patient safety risk

Copying and pasting information is common within EHRs, but the practice sometimes can lead to confusion and endanger patient care.

By Kevin B. O'Reilly, amednews staff. Posted Feb. 4, 2013.

During the winter holidays, a patient at Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut had a large pressure ulcer with an abscess. A surgical intern made a note in the patient’s electronic health record that said, “Patient needs drainage, may need OR.”

The problem? The same note appeared for several consecutive days, even after a surgical team successfully drained the abscess. The intern had copied and pasted the previous day’s note, but failed to appropriately update it to reflect the fact that the drainage was done. The note confused the consulting infectious disease team and nearly led to an unneeded change in the patient’s antibiotic regimen.

That's somewhat ironic I performed my postdoc at Yale Center for Medical Informatics where we discussed.among other issues, potential drawbacks of badly-designed or implemented EHRs.   Unfortunately, I hear from people who've left that the Center is relatively marginalized these days with respect to influence.  (Actually, the marginalization goes way back; if they'd listened to us in the mid 1990's they might have avoided this multimillion-dollar federal lawsuit for billing fraud.)

Mr. O'Reilly continues:

The practice of carelessly copying and pasting previous information, often dubbed “sloppy and paste,” is on the decline at Yale-New Haven Hospital but is widespread across medicine and can lead to mix-ups that sometimes harm patients, research shows.

“It’s especially problematic when you have multiple teams taking care of the patient and we’re communicating through the chart, which happens very often nowadays because physicians don’t see each other as often as we used to,” said Dr. Horwitz [General internist Leora Horwitz, MD], assistant professor of medicine at Yale University School of Medicine. “We do rely on the chart in many cases, and it can lead to genuine confusion.”

When you rely on an information system and the information system contains incorrect information (for whatever reason), patients are put at risk.  That the systems are implemented without simple controls on copy-and-paste (such as permanently embedding substantive metadata in the output) is a significant flaw.

From Sec. II of Aguilar v. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Div. of U.S. Dept. of Homeland Sec. 2008 WL 5062700 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 21, 2008), available at this link:

... Substantive metadata, also known as application metadata, is “created as a function of the application software used to create the document or file” and reflects substantive changes made by the user. Sedona Principles 2d Cmt. 12a; Md. Protocol 26. This category of metadata reflects modifications to a document, such as prior edits or editorial comments, and includes data that instructs the computer how to display the fonts and spacing in a document. Sedona Principles 2d Cmt. 12a. Substantive metadata is embedded in the document it describes and remains with the document when it is moved or copied. Id

Microsoft Word's "Track Changes" feature is an example of substantive metadata being displayed.

The available stats on the phenomenon are of great concern:

... A study in February’s Critical Care Medicine found that copying and pasting is the rule in EHRs rather than the exception.

Using a software program that can detect identical matching word sequences, researchers examined the assessment-and-plan portions of more than 2,000 progress notes for 135 patients created by 62 residents and 11 attending physicians working in a Cleveland medical intensive care unit. For the residents, 82% of the notes contained 20% or more copied text, while 74% of attending doctors’ notes also exceeded that rate of copying and pasting.

A similar study in the January-February 2010 issue of Journal of the American Medical Informatics Assn. found a copy-and-paste rate of 78% in sign-out notes generated by internal medicine residents. The rate of copied text in progress notes was 54%, the study said.

An example of physician embarrassment at relaying quite outdated information to a patient's family due to repeated note-copying was cited, and then a case of actual harm:

... Other times, patients are harmed. In a July/August 2007 case study in AHRQ WebM&M, an online patient safety journal, William Hersh, MD, described the case of a 77-year-old woman hospitalized for diarrhea and dehydration after chemotherapy.

An intern noted that the patient would receive heparin to prevent venous thromboembolism. The note was copied and pasted for four days in a row and signed by a resident and an attending physician, who appeared to believe the heparin had been ordered and administered. Ultimately, the patient was discharged without ever receiving the preventive medicine and two days later was rehospitalized and diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism. Only then did physicians realize the patient never got the correct prophylaxis.

“The problem is getting worse now with the rise of EHRs,” said Dr. Hersh, professor and chair of the Dept. of Medical Informatics and Clinical Epidemiology at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

That caught my eye.

This is the same Dr. Hersh who in Sept. 2010 in an American Medical Informatics Association mailing list, regarding the issue of risk and "anecdotes", accused me of not knowing my field, as I documented at this link:

... At "Health IT: On Anecdotalism and Totalitarianism" I posted these thoughts:
At the article Blumenthal on EMRs: Debate "raging" over competition vs. standards, ONC czar David Blumenthal is cited as saying several interesting things:

... EMRs make him a better physician, he said, recounting personal anecdotes of discovering patients' allergies through automated EMR alerts and using stored image date to more quickly get a diagnosis for a patient without subjecting them to more radiation and toxic radiation agents ...

It's the EMR "anecdotalists"
(as opposed to the "Markopolists") who say that "anecdotes" of HIT-related injury are meaningless. They deem reports of safety issues and HIT-related misadventures and risk as simply "anecdotal", and that "anecdotes don't make evidence" (or "anecdotes don't make data").

Yet anecdotal reports of EMR "saves" are used by a czar to justify tens of billions of dollars of expenditures?

To the anecdotalists, I say: you can't have it both ways.

I also posted nearly the same complete Healthcare Renewal post to several mailing lists of the American Medical Informatics Association including the Clinical Information Systems working group (CIS-WG). CIS-WG is a mailing list read by something over 1000 healthcare informatics professionals at last time I had access to the statistics a few years ago.

I received some supportive replies from colleagues, including collaborators on the AHIMA (not AMIA) book we co-authored in 2009 entitled "H.I.T. or Miss: Lessons Learned from Health Information Technology Implementations" - itself not exactly a popular exercise among the strictly positivist informatics leadership class.

Now, I thought my posting on the double standard regarding "anecdotes" highly straightforward. From a high ranking academic leader of a major national informatics program, Bill Hersh at OHSU, however, the following reply was posted:


For someone who is a faculty in informatics, I am surprised at how unfamiliar you are with the literature. There is solid evidence, much more than anecdotes, on the efficacy of health IT. Even Dr. Blumenthal himself has posted on that. (I think you are taking this quote out of context.

I am then served a platter of literature I must be "unfamiliar with" such as:

Goldzweig, C., Towfigh, A., et al. (2009). Costs and benefits of health information technology: new trends from the literature. Health Affairs, 28: w282-w293.

[Note - I had commented on and linked to this very article at
this Aug. 29, 2010 post - ed.]

Garg, A., Adhikari, N., et al. (2005). Effects of computerized clinical decision support systems on practitioner performance and patient outcomes: a systematic review. Journal of the American Medical Association, 293: 1223-1238.

Amarasingham, R., Plantinga, L., et al. (2009). Clinical information technologies and inpatient outcomes: a multiple hospital study. Archives of Internal Medicine, 169: 108-114.

Longhurst, C., Parast, L., et al. (2010). Decrease in hospital-wide mortality rate after implementation of a commercially sold computerized physician order entry system. Pediatrics, 126: 14-21.

Now, aside from the serious breach of academic etiquette of attacking the competence of your colleagues in a public forum, I seem to be hearing that it's OK to purvey positive anecdotes about health IT (usually based on weak retrospective observational studies alone, not randomized clinical trials), but not anecdotes of HIT malfunctions or of HIT-related adverse outcomes, since there's 'solid evidence' of the efficacy of health IT.

In plain English, an ad hominem fallacy is followed by an appeal to authority of sorts ("the literature") to justify public Pollyanna attitudes towards HIT by high ranking officials. And since the literature is so glowing, negative anecdotes must be of low worth.

I never received an apology for this.  Apparently Dr. Hersh was for "anecdotes" before he was against them.

I've had an email exchange with him just a little while ago on this, and his expressed point of view is that:

"After all these years, you still do not understand what I am saying. Kinda sad, actually.  Anyways, there is a role in medical science for anecdotes, sometimes called case reports. They are, however, the least strong type of evidence. We make inferences and broad pronouncements about them at our own peril, though you seem to do this years after your one anecdote [my mother's death from a 2010 accident - ed.], which I have always acknowledged was personal and devastating to you."

My reply was polite, reminding Dr. Hersh that my writings on HIT problems began in 1998, not 2010, and were largely ignored by the informatics and HIT community (other than "iconoclasts").  I included the recent Modern Healthcare article "HIT Iconoclasts" and a link to the post about anecdote vs. science at "From a Senior Clinician Down Under: Anecdotes and Medicine, We are Actually Talking About Two Different Things" here.

That is all I can and will do.

That said, I find the statement "We make inferences and broad pronouncements about [anecdotes, sometimes called case reports] at our own peril" remarkable.

The reverse actually applies in my opinion.  In medicine, "we" (well, not I) actually fail to make repeated anecdotes (like these and these) a top priority as a red flag for systemic, rigorous investigation, e.g., formal, transparent HIT premarketing evaluation and postmarket surveillance and a regulatory infrastructure, at patients' peril.

And, in case anyone was wondering, it's not exactly endearing to refer to the death of someone's mother as an "anecdote" or even a "case report", but I digress.

The AMA News article continues:
HHS OIG (Office of the Inspector General) announced that it plans to review multiple EHR notes for the same patient by the same physician to see whether doctors are copying and pasting the identical note from visit to visit. The practice is sometimes called cloning and could be implicated in fraudulent coding and billing practices.

That might serve to partially stem the process, but the HHS OIG's resources are not infinite.

The article concludes:

John Halamka, MD, calls for a more radical fix.

“The way we document in medicine has grown up over decades for medical reasons, for billing, for medical-legal justification,” said Dr. Halamka, chief information officer at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “You wind up with 17 pages of replicated and duplicated and challenging-to-read documentation. I propose we blow up the way we do documentation altogether and replace it with a Wikipedia-like structure.”

Such an approach would allow physicians to edit the progress note collaboratively, just as the popular open-source encyclopedia is updated. Dr. Halamka hopes to pilot-test the idea within the next year. “With that concept, you wouldn’t ever really need to copy and paste,” he said.

An interesting concept and experiment.  My questions:

  • Do we first rigorously investigate and understand the causes of the copying, i.e., cryptic and difficult-to-use data entry methods that significantly slow clinicians down?  
  • Do we get informed consent from patients for the experiment?
  • If so, what do we tell them?  We are conducting an experiment in charting, risk unknown, to solve cheating and risks due to poorly-designed EMRs?
  • Would not simpler solutions (such as the embedded-metadata identifiers indicating text has been copied as I described above)  be important to implement first, before experimenting with medical documentation?

That said, I believe the practice - an unintended and potentially adverse side effect of a new information technology, HIT - must stop.  I think Mr. O'Reilly makes that point clear.  Read his article at the link above.

-- SS

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