Sunday, March 27, 2011

In Defense of EHR Weapons of Mass Destruction

Remember the fear mongering rhetoric about weapons of mass destruction and all sorts of other bogey men that sometimes led to war death and true destruction and other times to just animosity, hatred and counterproductive waste of time and resources? This is exactly what we are witnessing today in Health Information Technology (HIT). Granted this is only a sideshow, while the main stage is occupied by the unprecedented Federal push to computerize medicine, but it has a very shrill voice and it seems to be confusing many good people. There are many legitimate questions that need to be asked, many strategies that should be debated, many errors that must be corrected, but the unsubstantiated, dogmatic and repetitive accusations directed towards HIT in general, EHR in particular, and chiefly at technology vendors and their employees, are borderline pathological in nature.

To be clear here, there are many practicing physicians and nurses who are either forced by an employer to use an EHR they dislike, have tried to use an EHR and didn’t enjoy the experience, or are opposed to the EHR concept on principle because the software has no return on investment in their situation, is not “ready for prime time” or is too closely aligned with the goals of the Federal government. These are all valid points of view and should be listened to and considered by policy makers as well as technology builders, and I have to confess that I do agree with much of what these practicing folks write and say, and as I said many times in the past, practicing physicians, i.e. those who see patients every day, are dangerously underrepresented in all HIT policy and technology decisions being made now at a federal level. Unfortunately, the practicing doctors’ message is being obscured and tainted by the “naysayers who predictably and monotonically chant the “HIT is evil” mantra at every opportunity” (quoting the famed HIT blogger, Mr. Histalk). These “self-proclaimed experts” and their incendiary and largely self-serving monologues are making it very easy to dismiss legitimate problems present in HIT policy and technology.

The #1 allegation against EHRs and those who build them is probably the one contending that EHRs kill people. HIT is supposedly an unauthorized human subject experiment which should be halted due to so many deaths and injuries. There is no evidence to support this assertion. Yes, there are several deaths documented, which have been associated with EHR software in one way or another, all in hospitals, but there is no documented evidence of mass injuries. The ugly truth is that people die in hospitals due to preventable errors of all types. They died before EHRs were introduced and they are still dying at similar rates after EHRs were installed. For every error attributed to software malfunction, there is a parallel error that can be attributed to lack of software or utilization of paper charts in general. For example, a software bug could cause records to end up in the wrong chart. How many times do paper records get filed in the wrong chart? How many times do paper records get misplaced never to be found again? How many times do paper charts disappear for long periods of time?  Of course since paper is a passive medium, all errors arising from paper charts usage are directly attributable to users. When an EHR is used, some errors, not all and not most, are attributable to the software. Ergo, EHRs kill people while prior to EHRs people killed people. Net effect is the same, although fixing software bugs is a lot easier than remediating people’s error prone behaviors.

The #2 inflammatory allegation is squarely directed at the business entities that build and sell EHRs, and individually towards anybody associated with IT, whether at a hospital level or a vendor level. Supposedly, these dim-witted IT folks have no understanding of medical practice and a complete disregard for patient safety and human lives. I have no doubt that some IT folks would not score very well on Mensa tests and others may have little interest in anything other than their paycheck, and this is true about any randomly selected group of people, including clinicians. However, EHR vendors are for-profit technology companies, and as such have an overriding interest in creating revenue. You do not benefit your long term top-line by purposely selling defective products. Suggestions that EHRs should be produced by non-profits are a bit naive considering that this is health care we are talking about, and we all know how selfless, charitable and patient safety oriented other non-profits are in this industry. I would also like to point out the few and far between health care providers who are willing to treat Medicaid patients due to financial and business considerations. How are the sacred patient safety and human life considerations ranked by those providers? I would assume they come in right after staying in business, keeping the doors open and perhaps even an acceptable profit level. EHR vendors are no different.

As to hospital IT folks, the ones I had the pleasure of meeting always listed patient safety as their main concern. Was it just lip service? I don’t think so, but all I have is anecdotal evidence. In any case, the incompetence and profit concerns of hospital administrators who drive EHR deployments in hospitals and health systems, to the extent that they exist, are not indicative of HIT being murderous or evil. They are indicative of the need for transparency and learning from those that manage to deploy the same HIT tools successfully, and those do exist.

Moving on to #3, we find the widespread platitude contending that EHRs should be built “by doctors for doctors”. Guess what? Many are, and it doesn’t make those EHRs any better. Amongst the larger EHR vendors, there is none that does not employ physicians and some have dozens of MDs on staff and hundreds of other clinicians. Many medium and smaller EHR companies were founded, and some are still owned, by physicians. There are two issues here. One is that most physicians fully employed by technology companies are not practicing anymore and I am not certain they ever did after residency. I have personally witnessed multiple times the huge disconnect between the professional IT physicians and those seeing 30 patients each day. Couple that with the “I’m a doctor, so I know best” attitude, and you are guaranteed an academic product that will have little value in the “real world”. The second issue is that most physicians know as much about IT as engineers know about medicine. With very few exceptions, commercial EHRs should not be built by doctors as a side hobby. They should be built by professional software designers and builders with extensive input and guidance from customers, just like quality products are built in all other industries. And by customers, I don’t mean “ivory tower informatics experts” who happen to have an MD after their name. I mean hard working, six days a week, frazzled and discouraged, practicing doctors and nurses.

Finally the #4 issue is the perpetual cry from various quarters that EHRs should come under FDA supervision. I strongly agree. Any instrument used in the delivery of medical care should be supervised to an appropriate degree, and maybe such transparent supervision would put an end to the fictional assertions that EHRs are guilty of mass murder. Done right, FDA supervision will definitely help folks make better product choices and deploy and use EHR technology in more beneficial ways. With the recent proliferation of “certified” EHRs, triggered in large part by the glow of HITECH money, FDA supervision could also serve to separate the wheat from the increasing amounts of chaff. It is also useful to remember that people are killed every day by FDA approved drugs and devices due to improper use, human error, negligence, criminal intent and product faults that the FDA missed.

In conclusion I would be remiss if I did not mention the multiple legitimate complaints regarding EHR usability and utility. While there is much work to be done, many errors to be addressed and much technology innovation to be applied, the form and function of EHRs is ultimately dictated by the environment in which they are used. The business of medicine (a.k.a. billing) dictated most of the box-clicking nature of older EMRs and the new population health, cost cutting and research focus emanating from the Federal government will just increase the demand for structured data elements and the accompanying clicking on boxes. EHR vendors will build whatever customers are willing to buy. It is infinitely easier to build an EHR without click-boxes and templates, than it is to build one that records and maintains hundreds of templates, customizations, vocabularies, cross-walks, guide-lines, protocols and analytics to slice and dice everything. Vendors would be more than happy to just give you a blank text box where you can type, scribble or dictate to your heart's content. But guess what every single physician looking to buy an EHR is asking right after the price question? “How many templates does your system have for my specialty?” The structure of EHRs is a symptom of quite a different problem and it will not be resolved until the root cause is addressed. So the lunatic fringe notwithstanding, EHR vendors are not out there to torture you or kill your patients. They are out there to sell you products and services and make some money in the process - just like Apple, Microsoft, Google, IBM, and you - and they build the products based on what the customer says he wants and what the Government says they must.

And no, you don’t have to buy one if you choose not to………


  1. Thanks for this post. Thanks for all your posts, actually. I always learn something from you every time you write.

    "The structure of EHRs is a symptom of quite a different problem and it will not be resolved until the root cause is addressed."

    What is the root cause here? The data collection needs of business and healthcare institutions? if so, how can that be addressed except by either:

    a) Polishing EHR UX/UI, or

    b) Automating data collection as much as possible through things like "smart rooms" or voice recognition?

  2. I think both a) and b) have to occur, but I also think that the EHR tool reflects the task it is meant to perform, and patient care is only a part of that task.
    It is very difficult to reconcile individual patient care with the competing interests of billing, and now massive data collection, which is assumed to be performed by the most expensive resource in the practice - the physician.
    Your b) suggestion is my best hope for a satisfactory resolution, and voice recognition is advancing, slowly, but advancing nevertheless.
    I can only hope that a decade from now people will look back at 2010-2011 and smile...

  3. Well, I think this is a big issue on health care technology. I hope they can make an action with this issue. Thanks for sharing.