A FRIEND was recently hospitalized after a bicycle accident. At one point a nursing student, together with a more senior nurse, rolled a computer on wheels into the room and asked my friend to rate her pain on a scale of 1 to 10.
She mumbled, "4 to 5." The student put 5 into the computer — and then they left, without further inquiring about, or relieving, my friend's pain.
This is not an anecdote about nurses not doing their jobs; it's an illustration of what our jobs have become in the age of electronic health records. Computer documentation in health care is notoriously inefficient and unwieldy, but an even more serious problem is that it has morphed into more than an account of our work; it has replaced the work itself.
Our charting, rather than our care, is increasingly what we are evaluated on. When my hospital switched to bar code scanning for medication administration, not only were the nurses on my floor rated as "red," "yellow" or "green" based on the percentage of meds we scanned, but those ratings were prominently and openly displayed on printouts left at the nurses' station.
Or consider "fall assessments," which a nurse uses to determine a patient's risk of falling while in the hospital — a problem that accounts for 11,000 deaths annually. The assessments ask about medication, mobility issues and confusion to create a "fall risk score," which then generates an appropriate menu of interventions.
A nurse could spend 10 minutes documenting a patient's fall risk, or 10 minutes trying to keep patients from falling. It seems obvious that a computer record of "fall risk" cannot in and of itself prevent falls, but completing those records is considered essential in hospitals. As a result, real fall-prevention efforts — encouraging patients to use the call light, ordering a bedside commode, having an aide do hourly check-ins — get short shrift.