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Health informatics pioneer Larry Weed dies at 93

Lawrence L. Weed, M.D., a pioneer in the world of health informatics and organization of patient information, has died at the age of 93. Weed passed away in Burlington, Vermont, on June 3 after a fall two weeks earlier, his son Lincoln said.

Weed created the who created the problem-oriented medical record (POMR) and the subjective, objective, assessment, planning (SOAP) format of progress notes that became ubiquitous. He had advocated for what now is known as clinical decision support for at least 60 years, talking often about “coupling” patient problem lists with medical knowledge that changes often.

“The unaided mind does not know what data to collect, and does not see many of the significant relationships buried in whatever data are collected,” Weed said in a 2004 story I wrote for Health-IT World, a former spinoff of Bio-IT World. Thus, according to Weed, paper records were inferior to computerization — and they were half a century ago.

While at the University of Vermont in 1976, Weed co-developed an early electronic medical record called the Problem-Oriented Medical Information System, or PROMIS.

In 1991, the Institute of Medicine report, “The Computer-Based Patient Record:  An Essential Technology for Health Care,” (revised 1997) said that the problem-oriented medical record “reflects an orderly process of problem solving, a heuristic that aids in identifying, managing and resolving patients’ problems.”

In a seminal 1968 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Weed wrote:

Since a complete and accurate list of problems should play a central part in the understanding of and management of individual patients and groups of patients, storage of this portion of the medical record in the computer should receive high priority to give immediate access to the list of problems for care of the individual patient and for statistical study on groups of patients.”

To this end, Weed developed a system of “problem-knowledge couplers,” and founded PKC Corp. in 1982 to market his idea. The company landed a series of government contracts, but struggled to catch on in the public sector. Weed was forced out by investors in 2006, and PKC was sold to consumer health company Sharecare — founded by WebMD founder Jeff Arnold and TV doctor Mehmet Oz, M.D. — in 2012.

Weed described the framework of problem-knowledge couplers in a 1994 article in the journal Medical Interface.

A true Renaissance man fond of quoting Francis Bacon, Tolstoy, Copernicus, Galileo and other celebrated philosophers, Weed was known as a brilliant educator, deep thinker and an engaging speaker. At the age of 89, he commanded the stage for a good 75 minutes at the HIMSS13 Physicians’ IT Symposium, and received two standing ovations.

“The worst, the most corrupting of all lies is to misstate the problem. Patients get run off into the most unbelievable, expensive procedures … and they’re not even on the right problem,” Weed said during that memorable presentation in New Orleans.

“We all live in our own little cave. We see the world out of our own little cave, and no two of us see it the same way,” he continued, explaining the wide deviation from standards of care. “What you see is a function of who you are.”

Lincoln Weed lamented that health IT companies have not always paid attention to these ideas. “The informatics community hasn’t really caught up to my father’s work,” the son said. “It’s not about technology. It’s about standards of care.”

The problem-oriented medical record is a standard for organizing information in a record. Couplers are standards for collecting data to generate recommendations based on the ever-changing body of medical knowledge, according to Lincoln Weed.

Some of Larry Weed’s ideas did catch on, notably, the SOAP note. However, some have recently rethought that format for the digital age, swapping the first two and last two element to create the APSO note. Weed defended his approach in 2014.

Weed stayed active up until his last day alive, according to Lincoln Weed. The day Larry Weed died, he discussed a poorly adopted National Library of Medicine personal health records project with sons Lincoln and Christopher. Lincoln recalled that his father said the NLM tool needs to let patients enter their own health data.

“I’m hopeful that the NLM is close to jumpstarting that process,” Lincoln Weed said. “Dad died with more optimism than he had had in a long time.”

Indeed, it could be argued that Weed was a founding father of patient empowerment. Back in 1969, Weed wrote a book called “Medical Records, Medical Education, and Patient Care.” In that, he said, “patients are the largest untapped resource in medical care today.”

Lincoln Weed said that the late Tom Ferguson, M.D., who founded the journal Patient Self-Care in 1976, “thought Dad was one of the originators” of the empowered patient movement.

With patient-generated data and now genomic information making its way into clinical practice, a system for organizing medical records is more necessary than ever, Lincoln Weed said. Equally important, he said, is a computerized system for matching the patient problem list with all known, relevant information to address specific problems — couplers.

“I’m glad Dad has left me with these things to work on,” said Lincoln Weed, a retired attorney who co-authored “Medicine In Denial” with his father in 2011.

Weed, who earned his medical degree from Columbia University in 1947, is survived by five children, a sister, two grandchildren and two step-grandchildren, according to the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press.  He was preceded in death by his wife, Laura, a physician herself who died in 1997.

Weed’s public memorial will focus on his lifelong love of classical music. His children are planning a memorial concert on Sept. 17 at 4 p.m. Eastern time at Charlotte Congregational Church, 403 Church Hill Rd, Charlotte, Vermont, according to the Burlington Free Press.

Here is a video of Weed from a well-known grand rounds he presented in 1971. It was unearthed by a Weed disciple, Art Papier, M.D., of clinical decision support vendor VisualDx.

June 18, 2017 I Written By

I’m a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

APSO vs. SOAP, continued

A couple weeks ago, I had a story in Healthcare IT News about the growing use of the “APSO” notes for documenting patient encounters. APSO flips around the traditional SOAP format (subjective, objective, assessment, plan), ostensibly making it easier to view progress notes in electronic health records.

As I reported, APSO is in wide use at University of Colorado Health and at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif. Baystate Health in Springfield, Mass., found that hospitalists focused most of their attention on the “impression and plan” sections of patient records, essentially the AP part of APSO/SOAP. Physicians at Epic Systems, according to University of Colorado’s Dr. C.T. Lin, are recommending APSO as a best practice.

Yet, the inventor of the SOAP note, Dr. Larry Weed, still believes his format is superior. You saw his comments in the Healthcare IT News story. But every time I have the privilege of speaking to the nonogenarian Renaissance man, he always has more to say than I can fit into the average article. I often can’t keep up in my note taking, but, fortunately, in this case, Weed and his son/occasional co-author Lincoln, took the time to put their thoughts in writing for me.

I left most of their comments out of the story due to space limitations. I don’t have that problem here, so I present their entire statement to me:

The following represents our collective thoughts, including references to relevant portions of Medicine in Denial [their 2011 book].

The supposed advantage of the APSO alternative — that it begins with the physician’s assessment rather than data — is actually a failing. This sequence tends to make the note provider-centered rather than patient-centered, and judgment-based rather than evidence-based.  In contrast, beginning the progress note with data disciplines the provider’s assessment. The provider must think in terms of specific data, specific problems on the problem list to which the data relate, and the interrelationship of each problem to the other problems on the list. Moreover, it’s important to begin the progress note with subjective (symptomatic) data from the patient rather than so-called “objective” data,  As Medicine in Denial states (p. 168):
“… progress notes should begin with subjective data, because progress should be assessed from the patient’s point of view.  Practitioners should be alert to discrepancies between subjective and objective data (for example, where the patient does not feel better when lab results show improvement). These discrepancies may signal an error in data or misstatement of the patient’s problem.”
In short, provider thinking can be disciplined with problem-oriented SOAP notes as a standard of care. Yet, regulators and academics who are in a position to act on this issue have shied away from the whole notion of standards of care for organizing data in medical records. See our comments on ONC’s Stage 2 regs and our comments on the PCAST Report.
The need for standards of care in medical records goes far beyond the SOAP vs. APSO issue in progress notes. In fact, that issue is secondary. Two more fundamental issues for medical records are the following:
  1.  Determining initial inputs to the record. Initial inputs are determined by selection of data needed for the patient’s problem situation, and once the data are collected, analysis of the results.  Both selection and analysis are fatally compromised when determined by the physician’s clinical judgment. External standards and tools, based on a combinatorial standard of care, must govern the selection and analysis. Once that happens, then judgments of patient and practitioners (not just physicians) may supplement the combinatorial minimum standard.  See Medicine in Denial, pp. 53-61, 69-79, 136-37, 145-52.
  2.  Organizing the medical record around the problem list. Once initial data are collected and a complete problem list is defined, then care plans, orders, and progress notes should be problem-oriented, that is, labeled by the problem(s) to which they relate on the problem list. This disciplined practice is essential to justifying provider actions in terms of defined patient needs. Yet this practice is not followed or enforced with consistency. Indeed, some EHR systems do not even enable electronic links between the problem list and care plans, orders and progress notes. See Medicine in Denial, pp. 134-35, 144, 159-60, 166-67.
Like so much else in medicine, medical record practices are a Tower of Babel. Medicine need standards of care for managing clinical information (knowledge and data) no less than the domain of commerce needs accounting standards for managing financial information. This failing is a primary root cause of the health care system’s failures of quality and economy.

For that matter, Lin had more to say than what you saw in the story. He discussed the supposed importance of the subjective and objective elements. “That’s true in cases where there is diagnostic uncertainty,” Lin said. But he added that those components are still there for reference, jut not up front.

Lin called SOAP “a phenomenal innovation,” but suggested that EHR complexity sometimes makes it difficult to find the assessment and plan. For example, he said that a non-Epic EHR in the emergency department at UC Health has as many as 17 different screens for progress notes. “At least with APSO, you would collect the assessment or plan in the first half,” Lin said.

Because SOAP is so entrenched, Lin ran into much resistance when he proposed switching to APSO at 40 affiliated practices. He, of course, heard the tired, “But we’ve always done it this way” defense.

“I learned myself about culture change very acutely,” Lin said. “I was literally shouted out of the room by our physician leadership.” He had neglected to prepare the heads of various departments and clinics for the change in advance of the meeting where he announced the plan.

He subsequently had to have individual conversations with all 40 practice directors. And then Lin dropped a great quote from none other than Niccolo Machiavelli (speaking of Renaissance men): “Those who benefited from the old order will resist change very fiercely.”

Yes, that’s absolutely perfect for an industry as resistant to change as healthcare. But is APSO superior to SOAP? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

May 20, 2014 I Written By

I’m a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.