Is Your EMR/EHR Smart?

I’m reposting a comment I made on @techguy’s excellent blog EMR & EHR. He tweeted:

I wrote my comment and tweeted:

And here’s my comment:

I wrote a blog post about this question several years ago, from which I’ll adapt this comment.

  • Question: Do We Need Smarter Users or Smarter User Interfaces?
  • Answer: Smarter User Interfaces.

Consider the distinction between intuitable EMRs (EMRs that are “figure-outable” by their users) versus intuitive EMRs (EMRs that figure out their users and do something useful with that insight). Intuitable usability corresponds to what I call shallow usability. It’s the “surface” or skin of an EMR.

In contrast, intuitive usability (used “correctly”) corresponds to what I call deep usability. It is about how all the components and processes deep down behind the user interface actively work together, to perceive user context and intentions, reason and problem solve, and then proactively anticipate user needs and wants. Deep usability is like having the hyper-competent operating room nurse handing you the right data review or order entry screen, with the right data and options, at the right moment in your workflow.


To perceive, reason, and act (let alone learn) EMRs need at least a rudimentary “brain.” When many folks think of medical artificial intelligence, they think of medical expert systems or natural language processing systems (rule-based, connectionist, or statistical). However, the most practical candidate “brain” today, with which to improve usability by improving workflow, is the modern process-aware (and context-aware) business process management (BPM) engine (AKA workflow or process engine).

Intuitive EMRs need to represent user goals and tasks and execute a loop of event perception, reasoning, and helpful action. BPM process definitions represent goals and tasks. During definition execution, goal and task states are tracked (available to start, started, completed, postponed, cancelled, referred, executed, etc) and used to coordinate system-to-system, user-to-system, system-to-user, and user-to-user activity.

BPM engines “perceive” by reacting to not just user-initiated events, but potentially other environmental events as well, an example of complex event processing. For example, a patient entering or leaving a patient class or category, going on or off a clinical protocol or regime, moving into or out of compliance, measuring or needing to measure a clinical value, or a clinical value becoming controlled or not controlled, are all complex events that can and often should trigger automated workflow.

Smart EHRs are adaptive, responsive, proactive, and capable of autonomous action.

  • Adaptive systems: these learn their user’s preferences and adjust accordingly….
  • Responsive systems: these anticipate the user’s needs in a changing environment.
  • Proactive systems: these are goal-oriented, capable of taking the initiative, rather than just reacting to the environment.
  • Autonomous systems: these can act independently, without human intervention.”


Learn, anticipate, goal-oriented, initiative, independent…none of these describe the behavior of today’s typical EMR towards its users. As a consequence physicians must compensate with a torrent of clicks (so-called “clickorrhea”) to push and pull these EMRs through what should be simple patient encounters.

What “drives” this smart behavior? An executable process model. In older terminology, a workflow, or process, engine, executes a collection of workflow, or process, definitions, relying on user input and context (the who, what, why, when, where, and how) to select and control definition execution. If the engine encounters inputs for which there is no model, then fall back on general purpose adaptive case management techniques for tracking goals and tasks, making them visible and actionable by physician users. Traditional BPM technology automates the predictably routine. More recent adaptive case management supports dealing with unpredictable exceptions—the high value-added knowledge work that diagnoses and treats the complicated cases.

Usability can’t be “added” to EMR. It has to inform and influence the very first design decisions. And there are no more fundamental early design decisions than what paradigm to adopt and platform to use.

No matter how “intuitable,” EMRs without executable process models (necessary to perceive, reason, and act, and later systematically improve), cannot become fully active and helpful members of the patient care team. Wrong paradigm. Wrong platform.

A truly smart EHR, on the other hand, has a brain, variously called a BPM, workflow, or process engine. This is the necessary platform for delivering context-aware intelligent user interfaces and user experience to the point of care. Right paradigm. Right platform.

In the spirit of advice from my Speech teacher about effectively and efficiently beating dead horses (”Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.”) …

  • Question: Do We Need Smarter Users or Smarter User Interfaces?
  • Answer: Smarter User Interfaces.

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