A Balanced EHR Copy Forward Solution

This post was originally featured on HIStalk.

 There’s been a recent wave of media coverage surrounding the topic of EHR copy forward functionality. Many have suggested that this function should be outright banned. The reasons vary, but in general most of the problems cited are related to the fact that the copy forward function in EHRs creates garbage and bloat in the patient’s record.

As someone who has experience designing and programming EHRs, who has deployed an EHR in inpatient and outpatient (PCPs and specialists) environments, and who has talked to hundreds of doctors about the subject in various presentations, I have a unique perspective to offer.

Lyle Berkowitz, MD, CMIO of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, recently posted on the subject. He’s right. EHR copy forward is a great tool if used correctly. The problem is that EHRs make it too easy to abuse. Most of the copy forward functions in EHRs look at the last note and quite literally copy every field forward into the current note. This is problematic because full-note copy forward allows the doctor to copy forward too much information before all of it can be digested and understood.

There are easily dozens if not hundreds of data points in a given note. Doctors shouldn’t be encouraged to copy hundreds of data points into the current note before having a chance to complete the current assessment. It’s too much, too early in the examination process. The EHR should make it easy to copy forward information in manageable pieces.

I lead the original design of a function in my company’s EHR called Copy to Present in the latter part of 2011. It’s similar to the copy forward feature in most modern EHRs. The primary difference is that it doesn’t copy the entire note forward, just the active area of focus. The function is available in conjunction with a date dropdown on all major sections of the chart.


For example, the physical exam page contains a date dropdown at the top of the page. When a doctor visits the physical exam page, the date dropdown defaults to the current date. Doctors can quickly review an old physical exam summary by selecting from a date in the dropdown, which is populated with dates of previous physical exams for the active patient. When looking at an old date, the Copy To Present button appears. Clicking it copies forward the selected physical exam to the current note. The Copy to Present button doesn’t affect any part of the chart other than physical exam; all other areas are left intentionally untouched. After clicking the Copy to Present button, the physical exam data is editable as if the doctor had entered the data by hand.

A video demonstration of Copy to Present is above and here.

Copy to Present and the date dropdown are useful for data points that need to be collected and updated during every examination. Examples include chief complaints, physical exams, review of systems, and assessments and plans. In these scenarios, the Copy to Present function allows the doctor to understand what they recorded last time before copying forward to the current note. It provides the quick copy-forward function doctors want and need, while still allowing fine-tuned control over what’s copied forward.

However, Copy to Present is irrelevant when dealing with other types of information. For example, allergy lists, medication lists, problem lists, lab results, medical history, and surgical history. The most up-to-date versions of these data points should always be shown regardless of who last updated the list across any care setting (inpatient, outpatient, ED). EHRs should understand (but most don’t) that these pieces of information aren’t part of a particular note as much as they are relatively static pieces of data about the patient. Once labs and allergies are recorded, they should be available to any clinician that needs access to them, and they should always be up to date independent of any clinical note.

EHRs need to understand the kind of information they’re handling. Different pieces of information should be handled differently depending on what the information is, who is accessing it, and what that person needs to do with it. EHR vendors have a responsibility to ensure they provide the tools to make sure clinicians can get what they need, when they need it, and understand it as quickly as possible.