Should Hospitals Track ED “Frequent Fliers” In Their EMR?

Particularly as value-based reimbursement falls into place, hospitals have good reasons to track emergency department utilization across populations. As with readmissions, ED visit rates and diagnoses can tell you something valuable about patients’ conditions and the extent to which they are managing those conditions, as well.

However, tracking individual ED use, especially by behavioral health patients, may result in less-desirable consequences. In fact, according to a viewpoint article published recently in JAMA, adding icons or symbols to the records of patients who are considered to be “superusers” or “frequent fliers” can stigmatize patients and create bias against them.

“A pejorative branding, ‘frequent flyers’ are often assumed to be problem patients. In psychiatric settings, these patients are sometimes said to be ‘borderlines,’ ‘drug seekers,’ ‘malingerers,’ or ‘treatment resistant,’ according to authors Michelle Joy, MD, Timothy Clement, MPH and Dominic Sisti, PhD.

The researchers note that at least one EMR offers the capacity to insert an airplane icon beside the patient’s name, and not only that, to display the icon in different colors depending on where the patient falls among the high using population. But they consider this to be ethically and clinically inappropriate.

For one thing, they say, uses such an icon ‘encourages the use of disrespectful and stigmatizing terminology.’ What’s more, the use of such labels may change the clinician’s initial interactions with the patient in a way that affects their judgment negatively, and may subject the patient to the risk of a poor outcome from their care.

Not only that, they point out, while it might be useful to know that a patient presents in the ED frequently, determining why this happens can only take place if the clinician does a deeper dive into their utilization history. And slapping a high utilization icon the patient record actually discourages such in-depth examination, they contend.

On top of all that, if the patient is assumed to be visiting the ED frequently for largely psychiatric reasons, “diagnostic overshadowing” may occur, to the patient’s detriment. For example, they note, if a patient has a co-occurring mental illness in a condition such as cardiovascular disease, the patient is less likely to receive adequate medical care than patients without a medical condition, as the psych diagnosis overshadows their medical problems.

To avoid creating signifiers like the icon, which may build in the makers’ implicit biases, EMRs and behavioral health apps should be filled and tested in collaboration with patients, consumers, ethicists and other parties sensitive to the broader ramifications of using such language and iconography, the authors suggest.

In the meantime, readers of this publication might want to stop and think if there are any other ways in which the health IT systems they design and use reflect other unhelpful biases. While placing a frequent flyer icon beside a patient’s name seem like a particularly egregious instance — or does to me anyway – there may be subtler ways in which your HIT systems foster negative or inappropriate assumptions. And it’s good to dig those out and examine them. After all, nobody wins when patients fail to get the care they need.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

1 Comment

  • More information is available regarding “affective bias in medicine”. My favorite is Pat Croskerry MD PHD. Food for thought. EMR records can be full of affective bias openly stated without an icon, if patients would only look and see. Usually the comments are subjective and illustrate the bias of the care givers. Sometimes the records can include comments outside of science and medicine. Not all caregivers have the intent to harm patients. Being human,unintentional harm can falsely label a patient and it will hurt that patient over and over again. I am shocked and saddened that an icon would have neen added into the EMR. I have seen my hospital records and there are lots of codes not available to patients. Although that is improving with ICD-9 codes appearing on-line along with ICD-10 equivalants. Finding out one has been billed is also one of those areas.

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