Wednesday, December 15, 2010

New York Times: Panel Set to Study Safety of Electronic Patient Data

New York Times author Milt Freudenheim has published an interesting article on health IT:

"Panel Set to Study Safety of Electronic Patient Data" (Dec. 13, 2010, link)

In the article Mr. Freudenheim presents various viewpoints on health IT safety and usability, and reports on an upcoming Institute of Medicine (IOM) Committee on Healthcare IT safety.

In general, the expressed viewpoints reported upon are consistent with the position in the Healthcare IT Ecosystem of those quoted. I wish to add some commentary to a number of those stated positions.

Mr. Freudenheim observes:

Taking a fresh look at such concerns, the Institute of Medicine created the Committee on Patient Safety and Health Information Technology to run a yearlong study and issue recommendations. The 16-member panel is meeting for the first time on Tuesday in Washington.


(This new IOM Committee is in addition to a 2009 study by the National Academies/National Research Council that concluded that "Current Approaches to U.S. Health Care Information Technology are Insufficient", which has largely been invisible. The IOM is the health arm of the National Academies.)

I would add that this Committee is at least a decade late. That it is occurring at all seems to be at the behest of a multitude of complaints and "blows of the whistle" from clinicians who increasingly depend (either voluntarily or by coercion) on this technology to provide safe care.

I would also add that it is my hope the IOM committee with not be overly politicized, considering the stated unconditional exuberance of the past two administrations towards health IT, and that a wide variety of stakeholders will be heard. (For instance, as a medical informatics specialist whose relative was injured as a result of HIT interference with care continuity, will I be allowed to testify?)

Mr. Freudenheim then relates the points of view of stakeholders.

In February, the F.D.A. said it had received 260 reports of malfunctions related to health information technology “with the potential for patient harm,” including 44 reported injuries and six reported deaths in 2008 and 2009. The malfunctions were reported voluntarily to the agency, mainly by hospitals.

“Because these reports are purely voluntary, they may represent only the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, a senior F.D.A. policy and enforcement official.


I'd written about this at "FDA on Health IT Adverse Consequences: 44 Reported Injuries and 6 Deaths, Probably Just Tip of Iceberg" where I noted:

This is a technology almost universally touted as inherently beneficial, right up to our most senior elected leaders, who are now pushing this unproven technology under threat of penalty for non-adopters.

Healthcare IT irrational exuberance can perhaps be illustrated in statements such as this:

“We have the capacity to transform health with one thunderous click of a mouse after another,” said (former) HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt - 2005 HIMSS Summit

I also opined at "If The Benefits Of Healthcare IT Can Be Guesstimated, So Can And Should The Dangers" that one could, as a type of thought experiment, extrapolate from these numbers to guesstimate the effects of universal health IT in the US. The results were startling, even if just an experiment:

[We might have] 880,000 injuries per year, 120,000 deaths when universal HIT use is achieved ... While this is a mere thought experiment, the result certainly suggests we need to know the actual rates of HIT-related patient harm, and act to understand and minimize these events.

In setting national healthcare policy, we should not rely on thought experiments - but even more importantly, we should not be relying on guesswork and wishful thinking as we are currently.

Unfortunately, national policy has been set up to now on wishful thinking. As I stated, the IOM meeting is coming none too soon.

The NYT article then reports on a statement made by ONC Chair David Blumenthal:

“All options for assuring safety are on the table,” said Dr. David Blumenthal, the Obama administration’s national coordinator for health information technology.


Yet Dr. Blumenthal is clearly an adherent to unbridled exuberance about health IT. At "Science or Politics? The New England Journal and the 'Meaningful Use' Regulation for Electronic Health Records" I wrote:

... In the NEJM article "The 'Meaningful Use' Regulation for Electronic Health Records", David Blumenthal, M.D., M.P.P. (ONC Chair) and Marilyn Tavenner, R.N., M.H.A. (10.1056/NEJMp1006114, July 13, 2010) available at this link, the opening statement is (emphases mine):

The widespread use of electronic health records (EHRs) in the United States is inevitable. EHRs will improve caregivers’ decisions and patients’ outcomes. Once patients experience the benefits of this technology, they will demand nothing less from their providers. Hundreds of thousands of physicians have already seen these benefits in their clinical practice.

I think it fair to say those are grandiose statements and predictions presented with a tone of utmost certainty in one of the world's most respected scientific medical journals.


Even though it is a "perspectives" article, I once long ago learned that in writing in esteemed scientific journals of worldwide impact, statements of certainty were at best avoided, or if made should be exceptionally well referenced.

I note the lack of footnotes showing the source(s) of these statements.

I also note the lack of mention of literature refuting or potentially refuting these statements of certainty. [Followed by a list of such literature just off the top of my head - ed.]

Dr. Blumenthal then appeals to authority:

Dr. Blumenthal said health information experts like Dr. Donald M. Berwick, the Medicare and Medicaid administrator, and Dr. Brent James, of Intermountain Healthcare, based in Salt Lake City, “agree that electronic health records will improve the safety of care.”

I am unaware of the expertise of Dr. Berwick and Dr. James in this domain, and the peer reviewed literature they've written that supports such a statement while soundly refuting literature written by other experts that indicates otherwise.

(Perhaps at Intermountain, custom systems that took decades to develop utilizing their Medical Informatics expertise do show safety gains, but such systems and the lessons learned building them are not easily portable to a country's worth of organizations and practitioners, especially under HITECH timeframes.)

Freudenheim then quotes Blumenthal as stating:

“At the same time, any time you change the world you create risks,” Dr. Blumenthal said in a telephone interview last weekend.


This sounds typical of utopian ideology. Yes, any time you change the world you create risks, but you should not attempt to change the world cavalierly and blindly to those risks. (That's the path the National Program for Health IT in the United States has been on, until the IOM meeting was called.) Idealists tend to believe the collateral damage that is caused by utopian experiments (e.g., communism) are a necessary sacrifice to achieve the utopia. Such values are both abhorrent and alien to medicine.

“We want to make sure that implementation is as safe as it can be and all safety benefits are realized.”


Blumenthal's been painted into a corner by tons of complaints on HIT safety; ONC must act, even if just putting on a show about safety considerations. If there were true concern for safety he'd recommend slowing down HITECH timelines until the industry gets its act together and our understanding of HIT usability, safety, and other issues is resolved; cf.: statements of HIMSS leaders on 'needing to be patient' for the industry to get healthcare IT right:

As I'd written about HIMSS admissions of health IT unsuitability to task at "NIST Provides Healthcare IT Industry with Remedial Undergraduate Computer Science Education":

... What have been their product design and development practices, such that leaders of their own trade group HIMSS (as I pointed out in other posts) opine we should be "patient" for them to figure it all out about how to do health IT better and they need more time, and that the technology does not support its users properly due to lack of efficiency and usability of EMRs currently available? (As at my July 2010 post "The National Program for Healthcare IT in the U.S., and the Elephant in the Living Room".)

Further, from the NYT article:

He [Blumenthal] said that if the Institute of Medicine “concludes that regulation is an important part of this fabric of assuring safety, we will want to balance regulation and innovation as we do in every marketplace.”


That he even needs to make such a statement is likely revealing of biases on regulation, which seem aligned to the industry. To wit:

“The policing of design by a third party or agency, however well intended, will likely stifle innovation and inhibit the growth and development of electronic health records in the future,” said Carl Dvorak, executive vice president of Epic Systems, which has built electronic records systems for Kaiser Permanente and other large health care and hospital groups.


There is a lack of evidence supporting such a statement (e.g., pharma has been regulated for decades, as is its clinical IT). The fact that NIST has just delivered Computer Science 101-level usability guidelines to the HIT industry in its recent report “NIST Guide to the Processes Approach for Improving the Usability of Electronic Health Records” to help solve the HIT unusability crisis also suggests that 30+ years of un-regulation did not facilitate ‘innovation.’

In fact 'unregulation' appears to have led to prima facie innovation failure and paralysis as far as usability is concerned.

Unusable health IT might as well not exist as far as clinicians are concerned. It is a menace to the safe practice of medicine. This is a first principle.

Per the NYT, the industry trade group HIMSS has gone mum:

The industry has recently avoided speaking out on a role for the F.D.A. In a statement for this article, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, a Washington-based industry group, said only that it “supports the administration’s decision to ask the Institute of Medicine to study this complex issue and report back over the next 12 months.”


They are certainly not taking a leadership role on this issue. In my humble opinion they will allow regulation, only kicking and screaming and being dragged into it by force. Patients come second to profits - the only factor that will be "stifled" as vendors are coerced to make better products.

The NYT article goes on:

Last month, in protest of one common industry practice, the American Medical Informatics Association said “hold harmless” clauses in many purchasing contracts were unethical. The clauses typically absolve manufacturers of responsibility for any errors or misuse.

“We said we value innovation, but we don’t value it more than safety,” said Kenneth W. Goodman, a University of Miami bioethicist who headed an association advisory group on patient safety.


It took a lot of writing and politicking to get AMIA to this point as well, at least to express it openly (cf.: my efforts here).

Finally, with regard to the IOM meetings on HIT safety, there will be industry stakeholders in attendance such as CCHIT and EPIC.

I believe they should be held to scientific standards of delivery. If they deliver marketing-based spin, they should be called to present scientific evidence for their stance – and not just “positive” evidence. They should be made to refute “negative” evidence as well, not ignore it.

In summary, I welcome the New York Times bringing these issues to the public.

I also welcome IOM's entry into studying HIT safety. While a "Committee on Patient Safety and Health Information Technology" should have been convened years ago, it's better late than never. (Except for patients already injured or killed, of course.)

The results may remain as invisible as the aforementioned National Research Council study. I also doubt the Committee's findings will change hearts and minds. Idealism, profit motive, and irrational exuberance are hard to rectify.

But their effects on people's behaviors can - and should - be regulated.

-- SS

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Deaths and injuries from CPOE and EMR devices have been obscured and frankly covered up. The FDA is the Agency enforcing the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act.

Is it not shocking that the medical devices now under safety watch have avoided FDA assessment required by law since 1997? At that time, AMIA via the Miller Gardner white paper decided that self regulation was sufficient and the then FDA Commissioner fell for the ruse.

And now, when the FDA has recognized and declared there is a problem, its authority has been eviscerated by the POTUS, the Congress, and Secretary Sebelius, in adherence to the HIT religion and industry leaders' financial largesse.

Anonymous said...

The HIT industry knows the cat is out of the bag and there is no going back.

Too little, too late.

Anonymous said...

" If they deliver marketing-based spin,..."

Not a question of if, it is a question of how many tons. The HIT vapourware business has been running on spin, hype, and deception.

Never has an industry produced "cure all" devices so unfit for purpose affecting matters of life and death of the populace. Usually, the FDA prevents that. But not this time.

This is a matter of an industry whose devices are over promised and over hyped, and under delivered.

Scot M Silverstein MD said...

Anonymous December 16, 2010 8:43:00 AM EST said...

This is a matter of an industry whose devices are over promised and over hyped, and under delivered.

I believe that, but don't take my word for it.

From Wharton, as at my post "Wharton on Healthcare IT":

"The best-case scenario is that information technology will improve quality but not lower costs. The worst case is that there's no difference at all."

... That opinion is echoed by other experts at Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania. "The focus on IT in health care is a good thing, but there's way too much hype about it and misunderstanding about what the benefits will be and how quickly they will come," says Peter Gabriel, medical director of clinical information systems at the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

[Kevin Volpp, professor of medicine and health care management] agrees that tracking real cost savings from health care IT is a difficult task, but he expects there to be some benefits from spotting and eliminating redundant care. But those benefits aren't likely to add up to big savings, says Lawton R. Burns, director of the Wharton Center for Health Management and Economics. "I agree that information technology is important, but it's not the slam dunk it's portrayed to be," he says. The chase to reduce costs, improve quality and expand coverage is deemed the "iron triangle of health care. A lot of us wince [at that goal]," Burns notes. "It's arguable that we can't do any of those things well."

David A. Asch, a Wharton health care management and economics professor, agrees that technology is a big part of reform. "No one is arguing against it, but that doesn't mean that it's not oversold," he says. Gabriel likens the fascination over IT in health care to a shiny new object that's easier to focus on relative to more daunting issues.