Originally created by Dr. Lawrence Weed in the 1960s as a part of his recommendation for a problem-oriented medical record, a problem list, distilled to its basic form, is a document that states the most important health problems facing a patient, such as illnesses or diseases, injuries suffered, and anything else that has previously affected, or is currently affecting the patient. According to the Journal of American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), among other things, the problem list was designed to help practitioners identify the most important health factors for each patient, allowing for customized care. However, a recent article entitled, “Problem Lists Can Threaten Safety, Pose Liability Risks,” published by Healthcare Risk Management, illustrates the ongoing problems with problem lists.
A team of researchers led by Adam Wright, PhD, a scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, studied 10 healthcare organizations that use different electronic health records in the United States, United Kingdom, and Argentina. The study, which was published in the October 2015 issue of the International Journal of Medical Informatics, was designed to see how complete problem lists were at each facility. The investigation revealed staggering levels of completeness varying from 60% to 99%, with an average of 78%.
Larkin v. Johnston, a recent malpractice case out of Massachusetts, illustrates what can happen when a problem list is incomplete. Andrea Larkin, a 28-year-old woman, former school teacher, who ran the Boston Marathon in 2004, suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed after childbirth and now requires 24-hour care. The case began with Larkin’s visit to a clinic after running the Boston Marathon and experiencing dizzy spells. Dr. Jehane Johnston ordered an MRI and CT scan which revealed brain abnormalities. Dedham Medical Associates had a specific policy requiring doctors to make note of such abnormal findings in a “problem list,” on the inside cover of Larkin’s medical record. This policy was intended to improve patient safety by bringing the conditions to the attention of any clinician’s review of the chart in the future. Unfortunately, Larkin’s abnormal brain findings were never entered in the problem list, so, when Larkin became pregnant nearly four years later, Larkin’s obstetrician was not aware of her brain issues. Larkin, who would have been given a C-section had her OB-GYN been aware of her brain abnormalities, was allowed to have a vaginal birth which resulted in a massive stroke just hours after giving birth to her daughter. Larkin was awarded $35.4 million – over $41 million with interest.