Docs Find New and Better Ways to Cut EHR Documentation Time

Leigh Page

May 05, 2022

Sixty percent of physicians cite documenting information in the electronic health record (EHR) and other paperwork as major contributors to burnout. Physicians have been working with a variety of ways to reduce their documentation burdens; could one of them be right for you?

Two methods involve human scribes — working either on-site or off-site. Two other methods involve digital solutions: The first is widely used speech-to-text software, which requires the doctors to manually enter the text into the EHR; the second uses artificial intelligence (AI) to not only turn speech into text but to also automatically organize it and enter it into the EHR.

These AI solutions, which are only a few years old, are widely considered to be a work in progress — but many doctors who have used these products are impressed.

Other People Do the Documenting: On-site Scribes

"It's estimated that now 1-in-5 to 1-in-8 doctors use scribes," said Jeffrey A. Gold, MD, an internist who has studied the phenomenon. Utilization is already very high in emergency medicine and has been surging in specialties such as orthopedic surgery; it is also growing in primary care, Gold and others say.

Scribes work with the doctor and enter information into the EHR. Their numbers have reportedly been rising in recent years, as more doctors look for ways to cut back on their documentation, according to Gold, vice chair for quality and safety at the Department of Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon.

The price tag of $33,000 a year or more for an on-site scribe is a major barrier. And because the typical scribe only works for 1 to 1.5 years, they must be constantly hired and trained, which is done by scribing services such as Scrivas in Miami, Florida.

However, Scrivas CEO Fernando G. Mendoza, MD, said scribes typically pay for themselves because they allow physicians to see more patients. Scribes can save doctors 2 to 3 hours of work per day, increase reimbursement by around 20% by producing more detailed notes, and improve satisfaction for both patients and doctors, according to several studies. In one study, physician documentation time significantly decreased, averaging 3 minutes per patient and 36 minutes per session.

Despite these possible savings, many health systems resisted hiring scribes for their employed physicians until the past few years, according to Kevin Brady, president of Physicians Angels, a scribing service based in Toledo, Ohio. "They figured they'd just spent millions on EHRs and didn't want to spend any more," he said. "They were also waiting for the EHR vendors to simplify documentation, but that never happened."

Brady said what finally convinced many systems to invest in scribes was the need to reduce physician turnover and improve recruitment. Newly minted physicians often look for jobs that don't interfere with their leisure time, he said.

On-site Scribes

On-site scribes accompany the doctor into the exam room and type the note during the encounter. Typically, the note is completed when the encounter is over, allowing for orders to be carried out immediately.

The traditional scribe is a pre-med student who wants to get acquainted with medicine and is thus willing to make a fairly low income. This career trajectory is the reason scribes have a high turnover. As demand surged, the scribe pool was supplemented with students aspiring to other healthcare professions like nursing, and even with people who want to make a career of scribing.

Since scribes have to set aside time for studying, scribe companies provide each physician-customer with one or two backup scribes. Mendoza bills his scribes as "personal assistants" who can do some nonclinical tasks beyond filling in the EHR, such as reminding doctors about the need to order a test or check in on another patient briefly before moving on to the next exam room.

Gold, however, warns against allowing "functional creep," where scribes are asked to carry out tasks beyond their abilities, such as interpreting medical data. He added that doctors are expected to read through and sign all scribe-generated orders.

Some practices grow their own scribes, cross-training their medical assistants (MAs) to do the work. This addresses the turnover problem and could reduce costs. MAs already know clinical terms and how the doctor works, and they may be able to get special training at a local community college. However, some MAs do not want this extra work, and in any case, the work would take them away from other duties.

How often do physicians use their scribes? "Our doctors generally use them for all of their visits, but surgeons tend to limit use to their clinic days when they're not in surgery," said Tony Andrulonis, MD, president of ScribeAmerica, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, company.

Virtual Scribes Work Off-site

Virtual scribes, who operate remotely from the doctor and can cost up to $10 less per hour than on-site scribes, got a boost during the COVID-19 pandemic because they fit well with telemedicine visits. Furthermore, the growing availability of virtual scribes from abroad has made scribes even more affordable.

"When doctors could no longer work on-site due to the pandemic, they replaced their on-site scribes with virtual scribes, and to some extent this trend is still going on," Gold said.

One downside with virtual scribes is that they cannot do many of the extra tasks that on-site scribes can do. However, they are often a necessity in rural areas where on-site scribes are not available. In addition to having an audio-video connection, they may also just be on audio in areas where internet reception is poor or the patient wants privacy, Andrulonis said.

Brady said Physicians Angels uses offshore scribes from India. The company charges $16 to $18 per hour, compared with $26 to $28 per hour for US-based virtual scribes. He said well over half of his clients are family physicians, who appreciate the lower cost.

Another advantage of offshore scribes is slower turnover and full-time availability. Brady said his scribes usually stay with the company for 5 to 6 years and are always available. "This is their full-time job," Brady said.

Brady said when large organizations arrange with his company for scribes, often the goal is that the scribes pay for themselves. "They'll tell their doctors, 'We'll let you have scribes as long as you see one or two more patients a day,' " he said. Brady then helps the organization reach that goal, which he said is easily achievable, except when doctors have no clear incentive to see more patients. He said he also works with clients on other goals, such as higher quality of life or time saved.

Speech-to-Text Software

For years, doctors have been using speech-to-text software to transform their speech into notes. They speak into the microphone, calling out punctuation and referring to prep-made templates for routine tasks. As they speak, the text appears on a screen. They can correct the text if necessary, and then they must put that information into the EHR.

Speech-to-text systems are used by more physicians than those using human scribes. Nuance's Dragon Medical One system is the most popular, with more than 1000 large healthcare organizations signed up. Competitors include Dolbey, Entrada, and nVoq.

Prices are just a fraction of the cost of a human scribe. Dolbey's Fusion Narrate system, for example, costs about $800 to $850 a year per user. Doctors should shop around for these systems, because prices can vary by 30% to 50%, said Wayne Kaniewski, MD, a retired family and urgent care physician and now owner and CEO of Twin Cities EMR Consulting in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

As a contracted reseller of the nVoq and Dolbey systems, Kaniewski provides training and support. During 13 years in business, he said machine dictation systems have become faster, more accurate, and, thanks to cloud-based technology, easier to set up.

Digital Assistants

AI software, also known as digital assistants, takes speech-to-text software to the next logical step — organizing and automatically entering the information into the EHR. Using ambient technology, a smartphone captures the physician-patient conversation in the exam room, extracts the needed information, and distributes it in the EHR.

The cost is about one-sixth that of a human scribe, but higher than the cost for speech-to-text software because the technology still makes errors and requires a human at the software company to guide the process.

Currently about 10 companies sell digital scribes, including Nuance's Dragon Ambient eXperience (DAX), NoteSwift, DeepScribe, and ScribeAmerica. These systems can be connected to the major EHR systems, and in some cases EHR systems have agreements with digital scribe vendors so that their systems can be seamlessly connected.

"DAX software can understand nonlinear conversations — the way normal conversations bounce from topic to topic," said Kenneth Harper, general manager of Nuance's Ambient Clinical Intelligence Division. "This level of technology was not possible 5 years ago."

Harper said DAX saves doctors 6 minutes per patient on average, and 70% of doctors using it reported less burnout and fatigue. Kansas University Medical Center has been testing DAX with physicians there. Many of them no longer need to write up their notes after hours, said Denton Shanks, DO, the medical center's digital health medical director.

One of the things Shanks likes about DAX is that it remembers all the details of a visit. As a family physician, "there are something like 15 different problems that come up in one typical visit," he said. "Before, I had to carry those problems in my head, and when I wrote up my notes at the end of the day, I might have forgotten a few of them. Not so with DAX."

Shanks knows he has to speak clearly and unambiguously when using DAX. "DAX can only document what it hears, so I describe what I am looking at in a physical exam or I might further explain the patient's account so DAX can pick up on it," he said.

Are Digital Assistants Ready for Doctors?

Since a human at the software company is needed to guide the system, it takes a few hours for the digital assistant to complete entries into the EHR, but vendors are looking for ways to eliminate human guidance.

"We're definitely moving toward digital scribes, but we're not there yet," Gold said, pointing to a 2018 study that found a significantly higher error rate for speech recognition software than for human scribes.

Kaniewski added that digital scribes pick up a great deal of irrelevant information, making for a bloated note. "Clinicians must then edit the note down, which is more work than just dictating a concise note," he said.

Many doctors, however, are happy with these new systems. Steven Y. Lin, MD, a family physician who has been testing a digital scribe system with 40 fellow clinicians at Stanford Health Care in California, said 95% of clinicians who stayed with the trial are continuing to use the system, but he concedes that there was a relatively high dropout rate. "These people felt that they had lost control of the process when using the software," he said.

Furthermore, Lin is concerned that using a digital scribe may eliminate doctors' crucial step of sitting down and writing the clinical note. Here "doctors bring together everything they have heard and then come up with the diagnosis and treatment," he said. He recognizes that doctors could still take this step when reviewing the digital note, but it would be easy to skip.

What Is the Future for Documentation Aids?

Increasingly more doctors are finding ways to expedite documentation tasks. Speech-to-text software is still the most popular solution, but more physicians are now using human scribes, driven by the decisions of some large organizations to start paying for them.

However, these physicians are often expected to work harder in order for the scribes to pay for themselves, which is a solution that could, ironically, add to burnout rather than alleviate it.

Digital assistants answer these concerns because they are more affordable and are supposed to do all the work of human scribes. This software parses the physician-patient conversation into a clinical note and other data and deposits them directly into the EHR.

Most experts think digital assistants will eventually meet their promise, but it is widely thought that they're not ready yet. It will be up to vendors like Nuance to convince skeptics that their products are ready for doctors.

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