Doctors aren't thrilled about electronic health records. When surveyed about their ease of use, they gave them a resounding F.

It wasn't that long ago that doctors were still scribbling notes. Now they're turning to their computers and checking off boxes. But something has been lost in this transition. “The boxes may have been checked, but the patient's story and information have been lost in the process,” said Edward R. Melnick, the lead author of a study of the survey's findings and an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at Yale University.

The researchers also found a strong link between electronic records and burnout.

Much of the information doctors enter into electronic health records isn't about patient care, Melnick explains. A lot of it is needed for billing. Trying to use electronic records to locate specific information such as a test result can be like looking for a needle in haystack.

That's not what was supposed to happen. Electronic records were developed to make health information easy for healthcare providers to access and share and also to reduce medical error.

Instead, doctors are reporting spending one to two hours on electronic records and other deskwork for every hour spent with patients and an additional one to two hours of personal time daily on record-related activities.

A Microwave is Easier to Use
In contrast to the low rating of electronic health records, other studies of usability have given microwave ovens and ATMs grades of B and Google's search engine an A, because they're all relatively easy to use. Like electronic records, Microsoft Excel has been rated F. Excel may be quite useful once you've mastered its intricacies, but the inability of new users to perform even the simplest tasks earned it a numerical grade of 57. In the current study, electronic health records scored even lower at 45.

Older doctors gave electronic records a poorer rating than younger doctors did.

Doctors report spending one to two hours on electronic records and other desk-work for every hour spent with patients.

Part of the problem may be that electronic records were adopted far too quickly. Federal legislation in 2009 offered $27 billion dollars in incentives to promote the switch from paper to electronic records. But many doctors encountered systems that were complex and difficult, and the transition proved to be extremely frustrating. Remember all the difficulties you had getting your first computer to work?

The study was a collaboration among researchers at Stanford University, the Mayo Clinic and the American Medical Association. As part of a larger survey, one-quarter of the physicians were asked to rate the usability of electronic health records, and 870 responded.

The researchers also found a strong link between electronic records and burnout. The lower a rating physicians gave to electronic records, the higher the likelihood that they also reported symptoms of burnout.

It's not that electronic health records don't have the potential to make life easier for everyone. It's just that they're not doing it yet, at least according to the doctors in this survey.

An article on the study appears in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.