A recent article on amednews.com called "Medical charting errors can drive patient liability suits" led with a case involving a bad outcome after coronary artery bypass surgery. The plaintiff's attorney alleged that the doctors did not review the patient's lab results or x-rays because they did not specific say so in the medical record.

The article quoted a defense attorney who said, "By the time [the doctors] are deposed, it's three years later and they say, 'I'm sure I looked at that,' but there's no charting to back it up.”

Unless there is something very unusual about the electronic medical record (EMR) used by the doctors in that case, there should be a very easy way to determine if they viewed the results in question.

A feature of every EMR that I am aware of is that each time a chart is accessed, the EMR records who accessed the record, where they accessed the record from, what they looked at and for how long they stayed on a page down to the second. It is like an electronic fingerprint with time included.

When I was a surgical department chairman, I had many opportunities to see how this worked.

For example, I was asked to review a situation in which a resident failed to call for help with a patient who was crashing in the ICU. An arterial blood gas showing severe metabolic acidosis was not acted upon on a timely way. The resident said that the nurse did not report the critical blood gas result to him after the lab phoned it to her. This could not be verified, but the EMR showed that he had seen the result some 30 minutes before calling his senior resident.

Another case centered on an allegation by a gynecologist that a consultant surgeon failed to respond promptly to a call to assist with a bleeding patient in the operating room. The EMR revealed that four days after the case, the gynecologist had altered her operative dictation to make it appear that she had called for the consultation much earlier in the course of the surgery than what actually had occurred.

A surgical resident looked at a chart of a patient who did not have a surgical problem and was not on his service. She denied having accessed the record. When it was reviewed, the EMR showed that she had looked at 9 separate sections of the chart and had spent more than 10 minutes doing so.

As is true of many reports about malpractice trials, important details about the heart surgery patient's case are lacking. But surely the defense attorneys must have known that the EMR could be searched to see if and when the doctors in question looked at certain portions of the chart.

If all medical, nursing and ancillary staff members are not aware of the tracking features of EMRs, they should be. This is the same type of tracking that catches unauthorized personnel who peek at the chart of a celebrity or other prominent patient in the hospital.

Note the example of the recent Boston Marathon bomber who was hospitalized. Staff who were not involved in treating him were repeatedly warned not access his EMR.

Consider yourselves informed. Big brother is watching.

Skeptical Scalpel is a recently retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and a surgical sub-specialty and has re-certified in both several times. For the last two years, he has been blogging at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweeting as @SkepticScalpel. His blog averages over 900 page views per day, and he has over 5600 followers on Twitter.