The first problem, documentation of previously undocumented behavior, is
common to all recording instruments. Medical record systems that depend on
people to record events, either on paper or computer, are highly filtered.
Sometimes this filtering is conscious and intentional, as when personnel
attempt to cover up an error by not entering incriminating information into the
medical chart. In the worst case, there may even be attempts to change
previous entries. This intentional distortion of data, however, is assumed to be
relatively infrequent. Most commonly the filtering is unconscious and
unintentional. It may occur because the recorder’s memory fades between
rendering the care or making the observations and recording them in the
medical record. In many situations, it occurs because the nurses do not make
their primary entries into the medical record.
While generally discouraged by protocols on medical records management, off-
chart records are commonly used by nurses to keep track of things to do,
medications given, and patient observations. These temporary records allow
the nurses to batch- enter data into medical records rather than keep
contemporaneous records. This allows two stages of filtering: first the
information is compressed into a minimal temporary record, and then that
minimal record is expanded into the permanent chart record. Such filtering
makes it easy to transform an item accidentally from the to-do list to the done
list without the task’s actually being performed. It also gives the filter an extra
chance to remove nonconforming information.
Filters are defined by what they exclude. Human clinical filters tend to exclude
things that do not easily fit into the expectations associated with the care of a
given patient. This should not be seen as an act of deception or even of
carelessness. It is more a smoothing of data that tends to obscure anomalies.
The smoothing is aided by the limited amount of information that can be
recorded by periodic observations recorded in essentially narrative format. The
end result of this process of smoothing and filtering is a medical record that is
more often characterized by what it does not contain than by what it does
document. This is borne out in litigation where records are usually
incriminating because they fail to record what was allegedly done.