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Medical scribes: The solution to EHR inefficiencies, or just a temporary bandage?

As someone who works at a company that creates user-friendly charge capture and messaging software for doctors, I find it slightly ironic that the latest in Electronic Health Record (EHR) technology has led to the resurgence of one of the world’s oldest professions: scribes. These modern day medical scribes aren’t exactly recording hieroglyphs, but they are instead helping doctors tackle EHR systems that have become all too complicated and non-user friendly.

What is a medical scribe?

Medical scribes shadow doctors at each patient appointment and enter the documentation from the patient encounter into their EHR system. In doing so, the scribes free the doctors from having to do this task themselves for each patient visit. Many scribes are pre-med students who are eager to gain valuable experience and make a couple of extra dollars on the side. Demand for scribes is growing rapidly at a national level as doctors become more aware of this service and scribe staffing companies become more widespread.

Why are scribes re-emerging?

The answer is simple: scribes are re-emerging because of the inefficiencies of EHRs. It’s no secret that many physicians are less than keen on using their EHRs, which have begun to develop a stigma in health care. A recent survey found that 41 percent of health care providers nationwide are dissatisfied or indifferent to their current EHR. This discontent stems largely from a variety of factors with EHRs: the amount of information that doctors have to record for each patient visit has increased, the software has become more complex, and EHR integration with other systems is still limited. Given these inefficiencies, provider productivity is consequently affected - many doctors contend that they are seeing fewer patients each day because of the overwhelming amount of time that EHRs require of them.

To scribe or not to scribe

There are some compelling arguments regarding the use of scribes for patient visits - both for and against the scribe.

Pros: Scribes save doctors valuable time by taking over tedious EHR clerical duties, and they thus improve doctors’ work-life balance. They arguably lead to more focused patient care during a visit, and also give medical students valuable experience and exposure to a high volume of patient visits.

Cons: Scribes are expensive and add to the high cost of practicing medicine. They are also arguably an intrusive and distracting presence for the patients during visits. But most importantly, scribes are the product of a larger failure of current EHR technology.

There is great debate among health care professionals about whether or not scribes are the answer to their EHR problems. Medical scribes may be a good temporary solution for EHR use, but this isn’t a long-term answer to EHRs. We cannot let EHR vendors off the hook by hiring additional staff to use their unusable software. And coming from a company that develops truly user-friendly software, I think it is completely backward thinking.

The use of scribes should be a wake up call to EHR vendors; doctors are so averse to using their already expensive software that they are now paying other people to do it for them. The health care industry needs to increase its focus and resources on improving health care IT to become more efficient and usable for doctors. These complicated but important EHR systems desperately need to become easier to use, intuitive, and streamlined, and to ultimately become a doctor’s ally. Let’s hope we don’t see a comeback of the carrier pigeon any time soon...
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