Usable EHR Workflow Is Natural, Consistent, Relevant, Supportive and Flexible

Posted on June 11, 2014 I Written By

Chuck Webster, MD, MSIE, MSIS has degrees in Accountancy, Industrial Engineering, Intelligent Systems, and Medicine (from the University of Chicago). He designed the first undergraduate program in medical informatics, was a software architect in a hospital MIS department, and also VP and CMIO for an EHR vendor for over a decade. Dr. Webster helped three healthcare organizations win the HIMSS Davies Award and is a judge for the annual Workflow Management Coalition Awards for Excellence in BPM and Workflow and Awards for Case Management. Chuck is a ceaseless evangelist for process-aware technologies in healthcare, including workflow management systems, Business Process Management, and dynamic and adaptive case management. Dr. Webster tweets from @wareFLO and maintains numerous websites, including EHR Workflow Management Systems (, Healthcare Business Process Management ( and the People and Organizations improving Healthcare with Health Information Technology ( Please join with Chuck to spread the message: Viva la workflow!

This is my third of five guest blog posts covering Health IT and EHR Workflow.

Workflow technology has a reputation, fortunately out of date, for trying to get rid of humans all together. Early on it was used for Straight-Through-Processing in which human stockbrokers were bypassed so stock trades happened in seconds instead of days. Business Process Management (BPM) can still do this. It can automate the logic and workflow that’d normally require a human to download something, check on a value and based on that value do something else useful, such as putting an item in a To-Do list. By automating low-level routine workflows, humans are freed to do more useful things that even workflow automation can’t automate.

But much of healthcare workflow requires human intervention. It is here that modern workflow technology really shines, by becoming an intelligent assistant proactively cooperating with human users to make their jobs easier. A decade ago, at MedInfo04 in San Francisco, I listed the five workflow usability principles that beg for workflow tech at the point-of-care.

Consider these major dimensions of workflow usability: naturalness, consistency, relevance, supportiveness, and flexibility. Workflow management concepts provide a useful bridge from usability concepts applied to single users to usability applied to users in teams. Each concept, realized correctly, contributes to shorter cycle time (encounter length) and increased throughput (patient volume).

Naturalness is the degree to which an application’s behavior matches task structure. In the case of workflow management, multiple task structures stretch across multiple EHR users in multiple roles. A patient visit to a medical practice office involves multiple interactions among patients, nurses, technicians, and physicians. Task analysis must therefore span all of these users and roles. Creation of a patient encounter process definition is an example of this kind of task analysis, and results in a machine executable (by the BPM workflow engine) representation of task structure.

Consistency is the degree to which an application reinforces and relies on user expectations. Process definitions enforce (and therefore reinforce) consistency of EHR user interactions with each other with respect to task goals and context. Over time, team members rely on this consistency to achieve highly automated and interleaved behavior. Consistent repetition leads to increased speed and accuracy.

Relevance is the degree to which extraneous input and output, which may confuse a user, is eliminated. Too much information can be as bad as not enough. Here, process definitions rely on EHR user roles (related sets of activities, responsibilities, and skills) to select appropriate screens, screen contents, and interaction behavior.

Supportiveness is the degree to which enough information is provided to a user to accomplish tasks. An application can support users by contributing to the shared mental model of system state that allows users to coordinate their activities with respect to each other. For example, since a EMR  workflow system represents and updates task status and responsibility in real time, this data can drive a display that gives all EHR users the big picture of who is waiting for what, for how long, and who is responsible.

Flexibility is the degree to which an application can accommodate user requirements, competencies, and preferences. This obviously relates back to each of the previous usability principles. Unnatural, inconsistent, irrelevant, and unsupportive behaviors (from the perspective of a specific user, task, and context) need to be flexibly changed to become natural, consistent, relevant, and supportive. Plus, different EHR users may require different BPM process definitions, or shared process definitions that can be parameterized to behave differently in different user task-contexts.

The ideal EHR/EMR should make the simple easy and fast, and the complex possible and practical. Then ,the majority/minority rule applies. A majority of the time processing is simple, easy, and fast (generating the greatest output for the least input, thereby greatly increasing productivity). In the remaining minority of the time, the productivity increase may be less, but at least there are no showstoppers.

So, to summarize my five principles of workflow usability…

Workflow tech can more naturally match the task structure of a physician’s office through execution of workflow definitions. It can more consistently reinforce user expectations. Over time this leads to highly automated and interleaved team behavior. On a screen-by-screen basis, users encounter more relevant data and order entry options. Workflow tech can track pending tasks–which patients are waiting where, how long, for what, and who is responsible–and this data can be used to support a continually updated shared mental model among users. Finally, to the degree to which an EHR or health IT system is not natural, consistent, relevant, and supportive, the underlying flexibility of the workflow engine and process definitions can be used to mold workflow system behavior until it becomes natural, consistent, relevant, and supportive.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss workflow technology and patient safety.