Thursday, March 03, 2011

HIMSS and Healthcare IT: We Don't Need A "Usability Maturity Model." We Need - USABILITY - and Less of Cold-Blooded Calculus

Health IT industry consortium HIMSS has followed up its Master of the Obvious, 50-years-too-late paper "Defining and Testing EMR Usability: Principles and Proposed Methods of EMR Usability Evaluation and Rating" (June 2009) that I wrote about in a Dec. 2010 post "Unintended errors with EHR-based result management: a case series, and a special pleading for health IT" with a new report:

Promoting Usability in Health Organizations: Usability Maturity Model (PDF, Feb. 2011)

I knew I was in for a heaping helping of gobbledygook after reading the title itself:

“Promoting Usability in Health Organizations: Initial Steps and Progress Toward a Healthcare Usability Maturity Model”

A “Healthcare Usability Maturity Model” is a clue that what follows will take simplicity, and expend considerable ink to tangle it into a mess of process mysticism, buzzwords, paradigms, very pretty charts, and other Master-of-the-Obvious-made-to-look-sophisticated, destined-for-the-dusty-shelf consultant report.

That is largely what follows. See for yourself.

This passage in the Executive Summary is pathognomonic of the amoral, money-over-blood, patients-as-guinea-pigs mentality that inhabits the commercial health IT sector. I find it particularly revealing and revolting:

... Leaders may be reluctant to incorporate usability principles and practices [in a safety-critical technology increasingly mediating all aspects of medical care delivery - ed.] because of perceptions that these methods may slow development and product fielding. However, data exist on usability return on investment (ROI), outlining the value of adopting usability in health organizations.

Excuse me? It takes proof of "ROI" to convince these companies to produce usable (which subsumes the concept of "safe") health IT?

This is as cold-blooded a calculus as it gets. This is Ford Pinto material:

... Critics alleged that the vehicle's lack of reinforcing structure between the rear panel and the tank meant the tank would be pushed forward and punctured by the protruding bolts of the differential[15] [by a rear end collision of only 20 mph/32 km/h, causing a fire - ed.]— making the car less safe than its contemporaries.

According to a 1977 Mother Jones article, Ford allegedly was aware of the design flaw, refused to pay for a redesign, and decided it would be cheaper to pay off possible lawsuits for resulting deaths. The magazine obtained a cost-benefit analysis that it said Ford had used to compare the cost of an $11 repair against the monetary value of a human life—what became known as the Ford Pinto Memo.[13][16][17]

An example of a Pinto rear-end accident that led to a lawsuit was the 1972 accident that killed Lilly Gray and severely burned 13-year old Richard Grimshaw. The accident resulted in the court case Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co.,[18] in which the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District upheld compensatory damages of $2.5 million and punitive damages of $3.5 million against Ford, partially because Ford had been aware of the design defects before production but had decided against changing the design.

[In more recent years, others said the Ford Pinto scandal was not clear-cut, but health IT unusability increasing odds for medical errors is clear-cut - ed.]

Why are these companies and their leadership getting to play God - in a field such as Medicine?

Usability? Those Luddite doctors and crummy patients will get usability over my - er, their - dead bodies, if I don't profit handsomely from it.

Finally, I have several meta-observations about this new report:

  • We don't need a "usability maturity model." We need USABILITY. We need the common and longstanding knowledge of software usability in other mission critical sectors to be applied on the development whiteboard and usability testing labs (if any!) at HIT vendors.
  • Why is it that health IT usability has to be written about, basically as if from the grade school level, in 2011 - some sixty years into the “computer revolution?” Do we still write treatises on why it’s wise to use sterile technique and good lighting in operating rooms? What is the major malfunction in this industry?
  • Why is this treatise not entitled “Promoting Usability in Health IT Vendor Development Shops: A Vendor Responsibility Model”?
  • The frequent use of the terminology "user experience" as applied to healthcare IT in this report struck my eye. It has been adopted in this report, but was uncommon regarding health IT until recently, as in my posts about the health IT mission hostile user experience.

The terminology is conspicuously absent in the aforementioned earlier 2009 HIMSS report. It would not take Sherlock Holmes to theorize that I might be an unattributed contributor to the new 2011 HIMSS report. If anyone knows differently, I'd be interested to hear about it.

-- SS


Anonymous said...

The lack of usability in HIT devices currently in use results in injuries and deaths. Such adverse events should still be reported to MedWatch of the FDA.

Anonymous said...

I had a Pinto moment - You really need to explain all of this to Ralph Nader. He and his folk could take this a long way.

Anonymous said...

I think you truly misunderstood the point of the paper. One way to improve usability is to improve how usability is embedded in organizational PROCESSES - as such these are embodied and described in the usability maturity model.

Scot M Silverstein MD said...

Anonymous April 19, 2011 5:11:00 PM EDT writes:

I think you truly misunderstood the point of the paper.

I don't think so.

One way to improve usability is to improve how usability is embedded in organizational PROCESSES

I don't think so.

The way to improved health IT usability would be to remove process mysticism and its profferers from healthcare, and do what my post says:

Improve IT USABILITY using decades of empirical usability research, not spout process jargon, and cut the cold-blooded calculus.

There's empirical evidence strongly supporting my point of view. It's called - decades of health IT and process mysticism, yet industry-admitted, severely impaired usability.

Also see this post: "Industry Doublespeak, This Time in IT", at

-- SS