Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"The tragedy of electronic medical records"

The Indianapolis Business Journal has published this article, citing former head of Indiana University's Regenstrief Institute, a world leader in EHR research, Dr. Clem McDonald:

The tragedy of electronic medical records
October 23, 2014
J.K. Wall

It wasn’t supposed to work out this way.

Digitizing medical records was supposed to transform health care—improving the quality of care and the service provided to patients while helping cut out unnecessary costs. Just like IT revolutionized all other industries.

Perhaps they still will. But lately, electronic medical record systems are getting nothing but votes of no-confidence from physicians, hospitals, insurers and IT experts.

Dr. Clem McDonald, who did more than anyone to advance electronic medical records during his 35 years at the Indianapolis-based Regenstrief Institute, called the 5-year, $27 billion push to roll out electronic medical records “disappointing” and even a “tragedy” last month during a talk with health care reporters (including me) at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

I agree with those sentiments.  The botched industry approach to clinical information technology has set back the cause of good health IT severely, largely through clinician disenfranchisement.  That dissatisfaction and disappointment will not be easy to reverse - and never should have needed to have been reversed.

... “It’s sort of a tragedy because everybody’s well-intentioned,” said McDonald, who spearheaded one of the nation’s first electronic medical record systems at Regenstrief and what is now Eskenazi Health. McDonald’s work in Indianapolis on the electronic exchange of medical records put patients here at least a decade ahead of those in most of the country in benefiting from the technology.

I'm not so sure that perverse behaviors such as willful blindness to the risks, profiteering, and indifference to harms caused by these systems, as I've documented at this blog and elsewhere count as "well-intentioned" (e.g., "FDA on health IT risk:  "We don't know the magnitude of the risk, and what we do know is the tip of the iceberg, but health IT is of 'sufficiently low risk' that we don't need to regulate it" (

... McDonald now has a nationally influential post to promote electronic medical records, as the director of the Lister Hill Center for Biomedical Communications, a part of the National Library of Medicine, which is one of the National Institutes of Health.

During his talk, McDonald released his latest research survey, which found that electronic medical records “steal” 48 minutes per day in free time from primary care physicians.

That may be true regarding data entry time.  I'd say the amount is likely more when accounting for confusion and communications difficulties that bad health IT causes.

... One-third of physicians surveyed said it took longer to find and review medical record data. One-third also said it was slower to read other clinicians’ notes.

Some docs don’t even read reports any more. This is a perverse side effect,” McDonald said, noting that the electronic reports have so much information in them, that they become “endless and mindless.”

I have used the term "perverse" in the past regarding commercial health IT; this is the first time I recall seeing the term from one of the EHR pioneers.

... More bad news about electronic health records came out this week in a new research study. It found that physicians using electronic medical records spend an extra 16 minutes per day, on average, doing administrative tasks than their peers who still use only paper.

The study relied on data from 2008—which when compared with McDonald’s study suggests EMRs are now consuming more of doctors’ time than they were before the federal push to expand their use.

“Although proponents of electronic medical records have long promised a reduction in doctors’ paperwork, we found the reverse is true,” wrote study authors Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein.
Yet we still hear promises about "increased efficiency" and reduction of clinicians' administrative tasks and paperwork due to health IT.  When will that canard be put to rest, one might wonder?

In my view, the experiment of making clinicians perform EHR clerical work has been a failure.

And it was, in fact, an experiment in the full sense of the word.  It was done with little clue as to the true effects on patient care.

From the article:

... So with so many so upset with electronic health records, why is McDonald still optimistic?

He thinks the problems folks are having aren’t inherent to the technology itself, but are instead caused by overly restrictive rules coming both from the federal government and from hospital systems.

Hospital systems, knowing that more information can be recorded now that it’s electronic, have insisted that doctors do more documenting. McDonald cited one research study that found that documentation requirements have doubled in the past decade.

“I think they’ve got to ask less,” McDonald said of hospital administrators. “Nobody has any idea of the time-cost of one more data entry.”

I don't share that optimism or a belief physicians will be asked to "do less" with EHRs, since physicians have essentially abrogated their professional independence and autonomy, and are increasingly becoming servants of their business-degree masters - and of bad technology.

At least nurses are fighting back, e.g., per National Nurses United (see query link

-- SS


Anonymous said...

Indy calls EHRs a "tragedy"; Florida Psychology Today calls them a "farce".

Which is it, or is it both?

Afraid said...

The money in the HiTech act attracted bears like honey. Businesses are carnivores, what do you expect?

I'm so tired of the policy wonks depending on the goodness of all people for their policy to work. The few bad apples push their way to the top.

The only way to stop all of this healthcare craziness is to take a lot of the money out of healthcare.

Then it might go back to a noble occupation to be a healer.