Thursday, September 20, 2012

At Risk in the Computerized Hospital: The HITECH Act as Social Policy Malpractice, and Passivity of Medical Professionals

I am revisiting the issue of HITECH in light of recent reports on health IT drawbacks and/or failure to achieve long-claimed advantages.

The HITECH Act, a multi-billion dollar EHR incentive/penalty measure inserted into the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act legislation (ARRA or 'economic recovery' act), is proving to be an example of what should be called "Social Policy Malpractice."

The HITECH Act was largely a consequence of intense industry lobbying on behalf of the IT industry (as in the Washington Post at "The Machinery Behind Health-Care Reform: How an Industry Lobby Scored a Swift, Unexpected Victory by Channeling Billions to Electronic Records", May 16, 2009).

It is in fact not based on science or reliable evidence, and has led to increased patient endangerment and a worsening national debt picture.

The recent revelations of reports from diverse sources including but not by any means limited to the following indicate that HITECH and its expenditures of billions of dollars on experimental, unregulated, unproven technology represents social policy malpractice:
  • Budget reports - in view of the deficit spending reported by OMB and others that is causing national debt to spiral out of control, jeopardizing the economic well being of the United States, and with upcoding as a side-effect and no cost savings, HITECH is an unaffordable extravagance. 

Of course, I'd already cited these reports in past posts but they bear repeating:

  • FDA (known injuries and deaths are likely the "tip of the iceberg" because of the impediments, and EHRs are medical devices that should fall under the FD&C Act, but FDA has largely refrained from enforcing our regulatory requirements with respect to HIT devices because they're a political hot potato - Jeff Shuren MD JD, CDRH),;

I'd called for a moratorium on ambitious EHR plans for similar reasons as far back as 2008, at posts here and here.
The path that ethical medical centers and clinicians should take is to delay computerization in 2012 and push for slowdown or retraction of HITECH and its penalties for non-adopters. 

Yet instead, what is usually seen is excuses and cheerleading by healthcare organization leaders, and passive physician and nurse acceptance of deficient information technology.  

This stunning passivity and acceptance by physicians and nurses of a deeply flawed technology of unknown risk seems largely due to physician learned helplessness and the Stockholm Syndrome.  See the posts on "physician learned helplessness" at (commenting on observations in MedScape written by a lawyer), as well as on the "Stckholm Syndrome"  at 

Per a psychiatrist/informatics specialist Dr. Scott Monteith who has commented on this blog, the compliance of clinicians may also be a manifestation of the inherent human psychopathology reflected in the Milgram Experiment (and elsewhere):

The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of notable social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. Milgram first described his research in 1963 in an article published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.

As to the consequences of physician "acceptance" of this technology in 2012 in its present condition, physicians are:

  • Acting, in effect, 'in loco parentis' for their patients, not in the latter's best interests, who are not even afforded opportunity for informed consent.  This is in violation of long-accepted norms of human subjects experimentation and research such as the Belmont Report, Nuremberg Code and HHS human subject protection regulations at 45 CFR part 46 themselves;
  • Giving free provision of their expertise and labor at improvisation and workarounds, in effect providing free alpha and beta testing to an entirely unregulated IT sector;

National health IT leaders have proven to be hyperenthusiasts about health IT benefits as well:

... This from Robert Kolodner, former head of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) at HHS:

Dr. Robert Kolodner, a physician who headed the federal push for electronic medical records in 2007, acknowledged that billing abuse took a backseat to steps likely to entice the medical community to embrace the new technology.

Kolodner said officials were certain the savings achieved by computerizing medicine would be so great that billing abuse, “while needing to be monitored, was not something that should be put as the primary issue at that time.”

In other words, sideline (ignore) health IT-based billing abuse (and safety risks to the live patients subjected to this experimental technology without informed consent) because "we believe" the savings will be greater based on "our faith in the technology."
Such individuals contributed materially to the social policy malpractice represented by the HITECH ACT.

Considering all of the above, I call once again for a moratorium on further economic incentives for EHR adoption, and investment in the very measures recommended by the National Research Council in its Jan. 2009 report "Computational Technology for Effective Health Care: Immediate Steps and Strategic Directions" that:

In the long term, success will depend upon accelerating interdisciplinary research in biomedical informatics, computer science, social science, and health care engineering.

This research must be conducted, of course, with full human subjects protections in place.

-- SS


Deborah Maliver said...


Anonymous said...

Kolodner is a Yale med grad and board certified shrink. As such, he should be familiar with the Milgram experiment. More so, he should not have directed a national experiment in HIT when the devices he is promoting have not been approved by the FDA as required by Fedreral Law.

InformaticsMD said...

Anonymous September 20, 2012 7:32:00 PM EDT writes:

Kolodner is a Yale med grad and board certified shrink

He also spent a lot of time in the VA and was a key figure in development of VistA.

Unfortunately, that experience was, in my view, inadequate and likely misleading for a role leading the private for profit HIT sector.

As one of the authors of "Medical Informatics 20/20: Quality And Electronic Health Records Through Collaboration, Open Solutions, And Innovation" about the VA experience wrote me a few years ago, he (the author) understood the health IT private sector and my writings about it to be a "different universe" or words to that effect.

The VA effort was largely grassroots, no profit motive was involved, and heavily involved endusers.

The observation of Social Informatics that IT must be implemented/managed/evaluated in its social context rings very true regarding IT in the nonprofit VA vs. IT in the commercial sector.

-- SS

Live IT or live with IT said...

Can't stop now, you'll lose jobs! Even worse, the lawsuits from those who missed the cash will pile up.

Bouclier said...

I am agree with you and i think that it's a serious issue.