The Necessity of Precision

Binary addition. Source: Wikipedia.

One of my faults as a programmer is not being precise enough at all times, yet I find I am still more precise than most people. It's a fundamental trait of people who are good with computers. Since I work in healthcare, and I do not work for a software development company, my workplace is an interdisciplinary environment. I get the opportunity to work with subject matter experts in many areas of healthcare, everyone from nurses to insurance experts. This provides a diverse work experience and prevents monotony, but it also drives me crazy sometimes. People who do not work with discrete data do not understand the need to be precise with information at all times.

If you are talking about sports, weather, or your children, you can be as casual and conversational as you like. Use slang, abbreviations, and incomplete sentences if you like. If you are typing in free text notes about a patient, feel free to use common English or shorthand.

If you are configuring data elements for a drop down menu, or to link tables in a database, you MUST be precise. You have to spell it the same way every time. You have to be consistent with whitespace, capitalization, and punctuation. If you use a hyphen in one field, you should also use a hyphen in any parallel scenarios. Don't use incorrect or nonstandard spelling. Don't use non-obvious abbreviations.

To wit, here is a gem I found today in one of our information systems.

"Pre-registration  Outpatient" [there are two space characters between registration and Outpatient]

"Pre Registration Inpatient"   [no hyphen, one space character]

Don't do that. These are configurable items that are database key values. While these values can be used, this type of inconsistency makes it very difficult to code logic on these fields. I'm sure it also makes the report writers' and data analysts' work more difficult (I've done a good bit of both in the past). Therefore you should not do it, even though it is possible.

Caveat: it might be that someone had to do that to avoid duplicate database keys from past configuration. If so, then it isn't their fault but arguably it's a flaw in the software design.

If you want inaccurate reporting in your EMR system, be casual. If you want accuracy and efficiency, be as precise as possible, and be consistent across fields.

Do it the same way every time. No whimsy. No lackadaisical attitude towards naming variables, defining standard values, or spelling.


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