Documentation by Exception is the Dredge of EHR Documentation

Posted on May 26, 2015 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

There was a very bad practice that was started thanks in large part to EHR software implementations. That practice is called documentation by exception and it’s employed by many (most?) EHR vendors. For those not familiar with documentation by exception, here’s a definition:

Charting by exception (CBE) is a shorthand method of documenting normal findings, based on clearly defined normals, standards of practice, and predetermined criteria for assessments and interventions. Significant findings or exceptions to the predefined norms are documented in detail.

In the US, we all know why this type of documentation was implemented. By documenting all of the normal finding along with the exceptions, then the doctor is able to bill the insurance company at a higher level. I totally understand why doctors want to bill at a higher level. In fact, it was the argument that most EHR vendors would make when they were selling their product to doctors. The EHR was able to help doctors bill at a higher level and get paid more.

While this is going to be hard to change for this reason, there are so many unintended consequences associated with using documentation by exception in these practices. I know so many doctors that are literally embarrassed to share their chart notes with their colleagues because their chart notes are these long, cumbersome notes that are filled with normal findings that provide no value to anyone. Many of these doctors have resorted to creating a separate “short” note that only has the relevant “exceptions” detailed when they send their chart notes to another doctor.

Every doctor knows what I’m talking about, because they’ve found these long lengthy notes that are totally unusable. Plus, in many ways it puts a doctor at some risk if they documented a long list of “normal” items when in fact they didn’t actually check to see if everything was normal or not. However, more important than this is that the doctor can’t even read their own historical notes because they’re so cluttered with all these “normal” findings that it takes real work and effort (Translation: Wasted physician time) trying to search through these awful notes.

If somehow all of these normal findings that were being documented could add some value down the road, then I might change my mind about documentation by exception. However, I can’t imagine any useful clinical benefit to documenting a bunch of normal findings that weren’t actually checked or that were only casually observed. If you didn’t document something was wrong, then we can assume that everything else was normal or at least the patient didn’t complain of anything else. Why do we need to document it clinically? The answer is we don’t and we shouldn’t (except for the getting paid comments above).

We need to find a way to abolish these documentation by exception notes from healthcare. In the US this will be hard since it’s so tied to the payment system, but I’m sure smart minds can figure out a way to fix it. Every doctors I’ve ever talked to wants this solved. It almost makes the EHR notes useless to document this way. This is one more driver in the US system towards concierge and direct primary care models. In these cases, the doctors aren’t worried about reimbursement and so I can’t imaging they’d even consider documenting a patient visit in such an awful manner.

A part of me wonders if EHR vendors will work to solve this problem as well. They could have the beautiful note and the crappy, mess of a note. They’ll use less vulgar terms like the “clinical note” and the “billing note” or something like that, but maybe that’s a small step in the right direction to satisfying the clinical needs (short, concise, relevant notes) together with meeting the billing requirements note. It’s sad that EHR vendors need to do something like this, but it would be better than the current state of EHR notes.