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Re-tooling the presentation of lab results (and other clinical data)

December 14, 2010

Wired magazine recently took on the unenviable task of changing how lab results are presented to make them more intelligible for patients. Working with physicians from Dartmouth, they took the indecipherable three column printout labs typically produce and transformed the same results into graphical presentations with simple explanations that most patients are able to understand.  The transformation is striking.

Although Wired approached this from a patient perspective, the same type of transformation needs to occur for physicians.  We are standing at the precipice of information overload.  In the not too distant future, electronic medical records (EMRs) will be operating in most clinical settings and provide access to thousands of data points (past and present) for clinicians.  Not only will we have greater access to clinical data, there will be a wider variety of data.  Continual advances in genetic and molecular testing will soon be providing clinicians with in-depth physiologic data on their patients.  The biggest challenge facing the next generation of physicians is integration of all this data.

The best way to overcome the onslaught of data is to present it in a clear, meaningful format.  (Have you seen Hans Rosling’s original TED talk?  It will convince you of the importance of data visualization.)  This is where EMR vendors have failed monumentally and one of the reasons clinicians have resisted adoption of EMRs.  Thus far, most EMR systems have been content to simply put clinical data that was on paper into a database and display it in bland, spreadsheet-like grids.  The only functionality gained by doing this was the ability to search and display current values along with historical data points.  The complications caused by EMRs currently outweigh their benefits (resulting in the resistance we see among many physicians) because the design of EMRs has not significantly changed from what we see on paper.

EMR vendors need to take a different approach to design and create a product that displays clinical data in a graphical format while simultaneously giving context to numbers and importance in terms of clinical significance (i.e.–the most important numbers should be presented at the top or in a different color or in a box).  This will provide value for clinicians (by giving them something they don’t have with paper charts) and will allow them to deal with the ever-growing mountain of data they face.  Adoption of EMRs can only be driven by providing value (despite the government’s insistence on providing monetary incentives).

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