What’s better: Narrative medical histories or checkboxes?


Compare the following two versions of the same medical history:

Version 1

CC: chest pain

Mr. Smith is a 57-year-old white man who comes into the office today for the first time with a complaint of chest pain. He states he has been in generally good health in the past, though he has smoked about 40 pack-years and admits to not exercising much, other than occasional games of golf. He has trouble keeping his weight down. He has been a middle-level manager for many years, but about a month ago changed jobs and took a pay cut. He says this has been quite stressful. He has changed jobs before, but states “I’m getting too old to keep doing this.” About two weeks ago he started noting some mild heaviness in his chest, lasting up to five or 10 minutes.

He attributed this at first to eating heavy meals at dinner, but now thinks it occurred after climbing stairs following meals. He took some Tums but was not sure if the pain eased from this or just from resting. These episodes of discomfort were localized to his anterior chest, without radiation or other associated symptoms at first. Over the last two weeks, he thought that they were getting a little more frequent, occurring up to twice a day. Two days before this visit, he had an episode of more intense pain that woke him up from sleep at night. This episode lasted about 15 minutes and was associated with diaphoresis. “My pillow was soaking wet.”

He woke up his wife who wanted to call 911, but he refused, though he agreed to make this appointment somewhat reluctantly. He has had no further episodes of chest pain, and feels that he is here just to satisfy his wife at this point. He doesn’t like to come to the doctor. He doesn’t know his recent lipid levels, though he says a doctor once told him to watch his cholesterol. His BP has been high occasionally in the past, but he attributes it to white coat syndrome: His BP is always normal when he uses an automatic cuff at the store, he claims. He is on no BP or lipid-lowering meds. He takes a baby aspirin “most days.” His parents are deceased: his mother had cancer, but his father died suddenly when his 40s, probably from a heart attack, he thinks.

Version 2

Mr. Smith

CC: chest pain

Age: 57 y/o Sex: M Race: Caucasian

Onset: 1 month

Frequency: > daily [X] weekly [ ] monthly [ ]

Location: Anterior chest [X] Left precordium [ ] Left arm [ ] Other [ ]

Radiation: Jaw [ ] Neck [ ] Back [ ] Left arm [ ] Right arm [ ] Other [ ]

Pattern: Stable [ ] Unstable [X] Crescendo [X] Rest [X] With exertion [X]

Duration: < 15 min [X] 15 min or more [X]

Risk factors: Tobacco [X] Family history CAD [X] HTN [?] DM [ ]

Hyperlipidemia [?]

Relief: Rest [?] Medications [?] Other [ ]

Associated symptoms: N, V [ ] Diaphoresis [X] Dizziness [ ] Other [ ]

Which is better?

Version 1 is an old-fashioned narrative medical history, the only kind of medical history that existed before the onset of electronic health record (EHR) systems. This particular one is perhaps chattier than average. It is certainly not great literature or particularly riveting, but it gets the job done. Version 2 is the kind of history that is available on EHR systems, though usually entry of a Version 1 type history is still possible albeit discouraged. With an EHR, entering a long narrative history requires either a fast, skilled physician typist or a transcriptionist — either human (frowned upon due to cost) or artificial, such as Dragon Dictation software. This latter beast requires thorough training and is frustratingly error-fraught, at least in my experience. The Version 2 example is not completely realistic. In practice, there are more checkboxes, more pull-down lists and other data entry fields than can be shown here. But you get the idea.

Version 2 seems to have a higher signal-to-noise ratio than Version 1. It’s just Version 1 boiled down to its bare essentials, stripped of unnecessary verbs, conjunctions, prepositions, and other useless syntax. It contains everything a medical coder, a medical administrator, or a computer algorithm needs to do his, her, or its job. It has taken the medical history, the patient’s story, and put it into database form.

But Version 1 is not just Version 2 embellished with a bunch of fluff. Certainly, Version 1 is more memorable than Version 2. There is a chance the physician who wrote Version 1 will remember Mr. Smith when he comes back to the office for a follow-up visit: Mr. Smith, that middle-aged fellow who was stressed out when he took a pay cut while starting a new job and started getting chest pain. Another physician meeting Mr. Smith for the first time might, after reading this history, modify his tactics in dealing with Mr. Smith. One gets the impression that Mr. Smith is skeptical of doctors and a bit of a denier. Maybe it will be necessary to spend more time with him than average to explain the need for a procedure. Maybe it would be good to tell his long-suffering wife that she did the right thing insisting that he come into the doctor. All this subtlety is lost in Version 2.

There are some cases where Version 2 might be preferable. In an emergency department, where rapidity of diagnosis and treatment is the top priority, a series of check boxes saves time and may be all that is needed to expedite a patient evaluation. But for doctors who follow patients longitudinally, Version 1 is more useful. A patient’s history is his story: it is dynamic, organic, personal and individual. No two patients’ histories are identical or interchangeable. Each history has a one-to-one correspondence with a unique person. A good narrative history is an important mnemonic aid to a physician. A computer screen full of checkboxes is no substitute.

While the Version 2 history was designed for administrators, coders, billers, regulators, insurance agents and the government, the Version 1 history was designed by doctors for doctors. We should be wary of abandoning it, despite the technical challenge of its implementation in EHR systems.

David Mann is a retired cardiac electrophysiologist and blogs at EP Studios.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


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