Tuesday, January 29, 2013

How the HIT zealots and profiteers have harmed physicians and nurses, not to mention patients, taxpayers, and the government

Any new technology introduced into a complex system, especially when introduced recklessly, has the potential to produce unexpected consequences, and the problems introduced can be worse than the problems the technology was attempting to solve.  This is a fundamental precept and empirical observation in the field of social informatics, a domain that studies information and communication tools in their cultural or institutional contexts.

Idealism combined with zealotry (excess of zeal; fanatical devotion) and/or hyper-enthusiasm that ignores the downsides of an intervention, and silences credible critique,  has also proven to be a dangerous combination.

Characteristic of the health IT hyper-enthusiasts been zealotry, silencing of credible critics, and spreading of illusory memes and technologies not yet fit for purpose; the characteristics of HIT profiteers is similar but for a different motive.  The end result in either case is harm to the interests and well-being of patients, physicians and nurses and other clinicians, taxpayers, and the government.

(Doctors and nurses ... after reading the findings below, be prepared to countersue the health system officers who mandated your use of EHR's for breach of fiduciary responsibilities, including due diligence, if you are sued for EHR-caused medical malpractice.)


Business of Medicine
Malpractice 'Discovery' Dangers in Your EHR
Leslie Kane, MA
Jul 16, 2012


Picture this: You've been sued, and now the plaintiff attorney has the right to send in an expert to sit at your computer and examine information in your electronic health record (EHR). Besides any mistakes you might have made, system-wide bugs or design flaws that lead to data inconsistencies could be found and held against you in the discovery phase of a malpractice lawsuit.

Doctors are becoming increasingly aware that EHRs can create certain malpractice risks. However, an expert in EHR and liability says there is a new category of malpractice risks in EHRs that most doctors have never considered. These include EHR system issues that you were never aware of and didn't cause.

You may have been coerced into using the EHR system via threat of Medicare cuts -- embedded without a public comment period in the HITECH section of ARRA thanks to the zealots and profiteers -- or via draconian hospital policies set by senior executives that threaten adverse personnel actions or other retaliation for those who refuse to use or are unable to learn to "effectively" use the corporate-chosen EHR (I have seen such policies in print).

These executives have simply taken the word of the sellers that the technologies are harmless, and have likely negligently signed hold-harmless agreements with the sellers as a symbol of their confidence in the assessment.

"Every aspect of EHR selection, implementation, and use may be examined in the course of medical malpractice discovery to uncover the source of the incident, or undermine the records that are being presented in defense of the malpractice claim," says Ronald B. Sterling, CPA, MBA, national EHR expert, Silver Spring, Maryland, and author of Keys to EMR Success (Greenbranch Publishing; Phoenix, Maryland; second edition, 2010). "Anything could be a malpractice issue, from the product itself, the way it was set up, or how you've been using it."

The same applies, I add, to any technology a clinician or healthcare facility might introduce into practice.

For example, authorized software upgrades can unknowingly cause liability problems. Upgrades to the software can change the historical data presentation you've already worked with. "An EHR upgrade can go back and affect data being stored for a patient," says Sterling. "The upgrade can affect the presentation and the reporting and usage of that information. I'm aware of upgrades in which a large amount of data was lost."

I'm aware of numerous "upgrades" that nearly caused catastrophes - in fact they may have caused catastrophes that were not publicized- such as here.

"Even if the practice does everything perfectly, there could be design flaws in the electronic health record or the way the practices uses it or sets it up. This gets exposed in the light of discovery during a malpractice suit. If the plaintiff attorney spots errors in the record -- even if the system, not the physician, creates them -- it calls into question every record you produce and every statement you make."

Considering the evidence spoliation that can and does occur thanks to electronic systems, of which I am becoming aware of an increasing number of incidents, discrepancies ("errors" in the record) should arouse suspicions.   Those "hold harmless" agreements should look less and less appealing....

... "There are all kinds of issues I can now delve into, more than I'd find in the paper world. In the paper world, there is not a lot of supporting information," he says. "However, with an EHR, you can see what time each event or note happened, whether it was before or after another event. These could become critical points in a trial."

Thank the zealots for this, docs.

Sterling described several types of problems that could create difficulties for a doctor in a malpractice liability case.

... System or product bugs (defects). One doctor was using an EHR that had inherent errors in it. It wasn't documenting information correctly. The information being entered was not being stored in the right location, and the patient's medical note was ultimately incorrect. "This now calls into question anything in the note, even if you did the right thing," says Sterling.

Caveat emptor.

Transferring paper records to EHR. What happens to the patient's history that was stored in the paper medical chart? The new EHR form may not specifically account for or match up with every notation you have in the old medical chart. If some information doesn't get transferred in, the plaintiff attorney may ask, "Did the doctor have the full picture of the patient's condition?" The discovery process may include comparing the patient's old paper record (if you still have it) with the history now in the EHR.

Signing notes. Some doctors don't sign their notes. This creates a problem with billing, but it also could prompt the question of whether the doctor actually provided those services to the patient.

The zealots never considered these issues, or didn't care.   "You're going to use EHR's whether you like it or not, because they WILL transform medicine.  So say we all."

... One physician was inadvertently distributing clinical notes that included inappropriate findings (such as results of tests that would not have been given to that patient). When the note was challenged during a malpractice trial, it called the patient's entire record into question.

"Unfortunately, the physician had been using software that contained the test setups from the vendor," explained Sterling. "He was recording information on the screen and printing it, and the printed copy was appropriate when he gave it to the patient, but the electronic record contained inappropriate findings and events. Because the doctor was using the forms that contained the original test data (even though the data were not quite visible), the EHR incorporated these old findings."

Just a "glitch", of course.  

One template affects other screens. When you use templates and you're charting by exception, you're viewing 1 screen. But when you check off items in the box, it sends those data to 5 or 6 other screens, and you may not be aware that the information is now contained on those screens. A doctor may decide to remove the information on 1 screen, but that deleted information has already populated 6 other areas and is still in the patient's medical record.

Why would one expect that using tools of grossly inappropriate provenance would not create problems?

Usage issues. The vendor stored it one way, but the doctor stored information another way, which changed the location in which information was stored. The historical record actually changed.

"What happened when the doctor could not produce the record he gave to the patient because it no longer existed?" asked Sterling. "The attorney would look at it and say, 'This is not the piece of paper you provided.' "Any of these could be the killer issue that ends your chance of successfully defending yourself in a malpractice trial," he says.

Sure, EHRs will 'revolutionize' medicine, once the EHRs actually don't introduce booby-traps to the practice of medicine exposing clinicians to the revolutionary guillotine.

Vendor Says, "Not My Fault!"

One might think that a product defect or design flaw should be the responsibility of the vendor, and the doctor should be held harmless for those types of errors. But it doesn't work that way.

"The doctor can be held liable because most vendors' contracts (signed by the physician) essentially say, 'We do not practice medicine; it is up to the physician to make sure this EHR is being used correctly.' The practices have to understand what they're using and verify that the system is appropriately set up to document the care they provide."

I note that doctors forced to use hospital EHR's never see nor sign those contracts.

In a trial, the doctor would be held responsible for product problems.

But just as scary, doctors could be held responsible for following vendor instructions. "I've seen situations in which the vendor tells doctors to do something, and doctors are relying on vendor and not doing their own proper analysis and design of the EHR that's tailored for their own practice," says Sterling. "The vendor is not the one responsible for maintaining the patient's medical record."

More than $20 billion of taxpayer "incentive" money has already gone to the accountability-free sellers of this technology, I might add. 

Bad News: You Need to Delve Into Technicalities

Most doctors are unprepared to explore the technical elements of working with an EHR. "Doctors have to understand what happens when you push the buttons," says Sterling. That means they have to take the time to work with the EHR and explore various screens and scenarios before they ever use it with a patient.

It would help to have people who actually know what they're doing around, a lesson hospitals have not yet fully learned when they depend on grossly inappropriate personnel of a business-computing background to lead HIT projects and make critical decisions on vendor contracts.

In summary, the HIT hyper-enthusiasts and profiteers have successfully conned the government and healthcare sector into using, or coercing clinicians to use, technologies unproven to provide the fantastical levels of clinical and financial benefit claimed (as in many other posts), that introduce booby-traps to users' legal safety, that can be injurious to patient safety, and that suck money from healthcare that could be better used in, say, care of the underserved.

What an enviable arrangement for the enthusiasts.

-- SS

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a scandal of immense proportions.