Sunday, 23 September 2012

Electronic referrals

White hydrangea flowers
Sissinghurst, June 2012
We have a new computerised referral system. The old referral system involved the telephone and pieces of paper with words written on them. Nurses on the wards would phone our office, and the admin team would write some scanty and usually misleading details about the referral, on paper forms kept in a file. When each of us had seen a referral intended for us, we would tick the form to show we were dealing with it, and go off and deal with it. This involved the admin team in answering the phone quite a lot, but on the plus side, they would do some basic triage and reject inappropriate referrals or bleep us if they thought we needed to know about a referral straight away.

The new referral system has been added to one of the many hospital systems that exist. The most surprising things about the introduction of this system were a) that we were told on the Friday that it would start on the following Tuesday, and b) we were given no information about how it would work or what we should do to pick up referrals or manage them once we had them. You can imagine that it has been a pretty steep learning curve, both for us and for the nurses on the wards. The main people to benefit have been the admin staff, who no longer have to write anything on the referral forms, but do still have to tell the nurses who continue to call the office that we don't accept telephone referrals any longer.

It has been an interesting experience, working with a new computer system that has not been designed or adapted for our use. I am still ignorant of the purpose of the change - why ditch a paper system that worked perfectly well for a computerised system that seems to work no better? It is possible that some numbers can be extracted more easily from the computer than from reams of paper forms, but which numbers are they, and what do they mean? If numbers were at the bottom of the change, then surely we would be given some instruction on how the system should be used, so that the numbers extracted would mean what they were intended to mean.

As an example, the nurses on a ward complete one section of the online referral form, and we then open the entry and can see what they have written. The referral has three options for status: when it is created it is 'Open', then it can be 'Under Review', where it sits on a viewable list, or 'Closed' when it still exists and can be viewed and edited, but is no longer on the special list, which only shows referrals that are Open or Under Review.

So we can assume that 'Open' means the referral is a new one. The next thing that used to happen was that we would tick the referral form and do a bit of background research before seeing the patient. We might see the patient several times, before they either died, left the hospital, or didn't need our input any more. At which point should we change the status to Under Review, or Closed?

The system has been in use for nearly two weeks, and the consensus about this has shifted several times. The latest informal discussion concluded that ticking the form in the book corresponds to changing the status to Under Review and typing our initials as the first entry. Actually seeing the patient prompts a change to a status of 'Closed', even though we may continue to see the patient many more times. And now, each time we see a patient, we are supposed to write something on the electronic record as well as writing on the record card.

I imagine that someone will gather the numbers about how many of these referrals are made, and perhaps the time between the various changes of status. That 'someone' will have little information about what these numbers or times mean, otherwise they might have specified what they wanted and told us how to operate the system in advance of going live.

The overall effect of this new system, after nearly two weeks of operation, is that the admin staff have considerably less to do now that phone referrals have almost stopped, but there has been an equivalent increase in workload for nurses and doctors who are now making the referrals online, and we Dietitians having to make additional notes where we didn't before. And our head of service is getting some data that she didn't have before.

There is a positive side to this, however. In time, we will be able to see whether a patient has had previous contact with a Dietitian on a ward, which is very useful information that we don't have at present. We might also be able to see details of what was done on that previous occasion without having to track down a physical card that might be archived in a warehouse somewhere. The electronic referrals also have scope for the nurses to provide a good deal more relevant detail about a patient than they used to on the phone.

The negative aspects, apart from those outlined above, also include the fact that access to computers on the wards is very limited - the doctors are usually using them to look up blood results, scans and x-rays and results of investigations. This has made it quite difficult for nurses to actually do the referrals online.

If you have read this far, you either know me personally and imagine that this blog entry will get more interesting by the end, or sufficiently obsessive not to be able to stop reading until you have finished. Or, in the case of Lola II, you will have skipped the majority of the boring bits and reached here to finish off, which is not a criticism of Lola II, but in this case a very sensible way to deal with a fairly tedious text. Well done for getting here! Next time, perhaps there will be something more interesting. Unfortunately, the most interesting bits are about patients, and what makes them interesting is precisely what makes them impossible to write about.

1 comment:

  1. You might be interested to know that I read your posting all the way through, no hesitation repetition or deviation. Well I was eating a cheese triangle throughout, but I didn't let it interfere with my reading, oh no siree.

    Your postings are, without fail, ALWAYS interesting. And I am unanimous in that.


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