Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Wall Street Journal: "ObamaCare’s Electronic-Records Debacle"

This WSJ Op-Ed could have been entitled "President Sucker:  Led Down the Garden Path by The Healthcare IT Industry."

It is entitled "ObamaCare’s Electronic-Records Debacle", as below.  First, though:

On Feb. 18, 2009 the WSJ published the following Letter to the Editor authored by me (http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB123492035330205101):

Digitizing Medical Records May Help, but It's Complex

Dear WSJ:

You observe that the true political goal is socialized medicine facilitated by health care information technology. You note that the public is being deceived, as the rules behind this takeover were stealthily inserted in the stimulus bill.

I have a different view on who is deceiving whom. In fact, it is the government that has been deceived by the HIT industry and its pundits. Stated directly, the administration is deluded about the true difficulty of making large-scale health IT work. The beneficiaries will largely be the IT industry and IT management consultants.

For £12.7 billion the U.K., which already has socialized medicine, still does not have a working national HIT system, but instead has a major IT quagmire, some of it caused by U.S. HIT vendors.

HIT (with a few exceptions) is largely a disaster. I'm far more concerned about a mega-expensive IT misadventure than an IT-empowered takeover of medicine.

The stimulus bill, to its credit, recognizes the need for research on improving HIT. However this is a tool to facilitate clinical care, not a cybernetic miracle to revolutionize medicine. The government has bought the IT magic bullet exuberance hook, line and sinker.

I can only hope patients get something worthwhile for the $20 billion. 

Scot Silverstein, M.D.
Biomedical Informatics
Drexel University Institute for Healthcare Informatics

The UK's National Programme for Health IT in the NHS (NPfIT) has since died. (See my Sept. 22, 2011 post "NPfIT Programme goes PfffT" at http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2011/09/npfit-programme-going-pffft.html.)  Also see my Dec. 7, 2008 post "Open Letter to President Barack Obama on Healthcare Information Technology" warning of many issues at http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2008/12/open-letter-to-president-barack-obama.html.

Now, the WSJ, to which I and other colleagues have been speaking about the realities of healthcare information technology for years but which has seemed reluctant to publish what would amount to a stinging corporate rebuke, has published this Op-Ed by a surgeon, Jeffrey A. Singer:

ObamaCare’s Electronic-Records Debacle
The rule raises health-care costs even as it means doctors see fewer patients while providing worse care.

By Jeffrey A. Singer
Feb. 16, 2015 7:33 p.m. ET

The debate over ObamaCare has obscured another important example of government meddling in medicine. Starting this year, physicians like myself who treat Medicare patients must adopt electronic health records, known as EHRs, which are digital versions of a patient’s paper charts. If doctors do not comply, our reimbursement rates will be cut by 1%, rising to a maximum of 5% by the end of the decade.

I am an unwilling participant in this program. In my experience, EHRs harm patients more than they help.

I note that it's not just physicians who are unwilling participants in this medical experiment.  We all are - as patients - in this unregulated experiment. 

As a colleague puts it, with an addendum by me:

"Why are we implementing patient care tools that are not tested for harms, not evaluated for harms, not reported systematically for harms, while the government does not refute the statement that harms are caused by EHRs and admits the true magnitude of harms is unknown?"

The program was inspired by the record-keeping models used by integrated health systems, especially those of the nonprofit consortium Kaiser Permanente and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Yet even in those environments, these systems cause major problems, e.g.,

Complicated, confusing EHRs pose serious patient safety threats [at VA]

By Sabriya Rice
Posted: June 20, 2014 - 8:15 pm ET

Confusing displays, improperly configured software, upgrade glitches and systems failing to speak to one another—those are just a few electronic health record-related events that put patients in danger, according to a new study.

The more complex an EHR system, the more difficult it may be to trace problems, patient safety experts warn. Hospitals planning to add new software or make updates should be strategic about changes and proactively include ways to monitor events.

“Because EHR-related safety concerns have complex socio-technical origins, institutions with longstanding, as well as recent EHR implementations, should build a robust infrastructure to monitor and learn from them,” concluded the report published Friday in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.

Researchers evaluated 100 closed safety investigations reported between August 2009 and May 2013 to the Informatics Patient Safety Office of the Veterans Health Administration.

Among the findings, 74 events resulted from unsafe technology, such as system failures, computer glitches, false alarms or “hidden dependencies,” a term for what happens when a change in one part of a system inadvertently leads to key changes in another part. Another 25 events involved unsafe use of technology such as an input error or a misinterpretation of a display.

The authors of that study admitted the data was very incomplete due to limitations of error recognition, data collection and diffusion, and other factors.

Back to the WSJ:

The federal government mandated in the 2009 stimulus bill that all medical providers that accept Medicare adopt the records by 2015. Bureaucrats and politicians argued that EHRs would facilitate “evidence-based medicine,” thereby improving the quality of care for patients.

This is the "silver bullet theory of IT-enabled transformation" at work.  Add computers and - Presto!  Better care!  After all, how hard can it be to get to the moon in a hot air balloon? 

The moon is "up" and balloons go "up", therefore, why not? All that's required are the right "processes" -- with which the Acme Hot Air Balloon Co. executives can accomplish anything -- and ignoring those pessimistic scientists, engineers and other experts who speak of vacuum of space and radiation and all those esoteric "gotchas" that are bad for business! (See my 2008 Powerpoint presentation to the IEEE Medical Technology Policy Committee on these issues entitled "To The Moon In A Hot Air Balloon: Why Is Clinical IT Difficult?" at this link.)

But for all the talk of “evidence-based medicine,” the federal government barely bothered to study electronic health records before nationalizing the program. The Department of Health and Human Services initiated a five-year pilot program in 2008 to encourage physicians in 12 cities and states to use electronic health records. One year later, the stimulus required EHRs nationwide. By moving forward without sufficient evidence, lawmakers ignored the possibility that what worked for Kaiser or the VA might not work as well for Dr. Jones.

Not only that, the government and industry are hell-bent on avoiding any meaningful quality regulation (see my April 9, 2014 post "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" (http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2014/04/fda-on-health-it-risk-reckless-or.html).

Even more critically, they didn't bother to seriously study harms.  Leave that to the independent ECRI Institute, whose findings were alarming (see http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2013/02/peering-underneath-icebergs-water-level.html).  The ECRI Institute has not followed up on this study that I am aware; being recipients of government money, as I understand it, to study the problems may have impaired their independence and softened their tone.)

Which is exactly what is happening today. Electronic health records are contributing to two major problems: lower quality of care and higher costs.

The former is evident in the attention-dividing nature of electronic health records. They force me to physically turn my attention away from patients and toward a computer screen—a shift from individual care to IT compliance. This is more than a mere nuisance; it is an impediment to providing personal medical attention.

As someone who formally entered the field in 1992 via postdoc in Medical Informatics at Yale School of Medicine, I can state emphatically that the whole concept of direct physician data entry was an experiment.  In medical informatics, we were exploring ways to avoid the known detriments of direct physician entry via creative applications of information technology.

That experiment has been a clear failure, at least as diffused into the commercial health IT sector in 2015.  However few in my field are willing to admit this due to, in large part, avoidance of dealing with the unpleasant consequences of that admission.  (One pioneer, Clement McDonald now at NIH, has admitted this.  See my Oct. 29, 2014 post "The tragedy of electronic medical records" (http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-tragedy-of-electronic-medical.html.)

Doctors now regularly field patient complaints about this unfortunate reality. The problem is so widespread that the American Medical Association—a prominent supporter of the electronic-health-record program—felt compelled to defend EHRs in a 2013 report [now supplanted - see below - ed.], implying that any negative experiences were the fault of bedside manner rather than the program.

AMA has changed its tone.

I think the author of this Op-Ed may have missed the Jan. 21, 2015 letter to HHS from multiple medical societies or submitted this Op-Ed prior to that date. 

A group of 37 medical societies led by the American Medical Association sent a letter to Health and Human Services
last month saying the certification program is headed in the wrong direction, and that today's electronic records systems are cumbersome, decrease efficiency and, most importantly, can present safety problems for patients. 

I covered that Jan. 21, 2015 letter at http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2015/01/meaningful-use-not-so-meaningul.html

Apparently our poor bedside manner is a national crisis, judging by how my fellow physicians feel about the EHR program. A 2014 survey by the industry group Medical Economics discovered that 67% of doctors are “dissatisfied with [EHR] functionality.” Three of four physicians said electronic health records “do not save them time,” according to Deloitte. Doctors reported spending—or more accurately, wasting—an average of 48 minutes each day dealing with this system.

Nurses are having similar experiences.  I've written previously about substantial problems nurses at Affinity Medical Center, Ohio (http://www.affinitymedicalcenter.com/) and other organizations are having with EHRs, and how hospital executives were ignoring their complaints.  The complaints have been made openly, I believe, in large part due to the protection afforded by nurses' unions.

See for example my July 2013 post "RNs Say Sutter’s New Electronic System Causing Serious Disruptions to Safe Patient Care at East Bay Hospitals" at http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2013/07/rns-say-sutters-new-electronic-system.html (there are links there to still more examples), and my June 2013 post  "Affinity RNs Call for Halt to Flawed Electronic Medical Records System Scheduled to Go Live Friday" at http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2013/06/affinity-rns-call-for-halt-to-flawed.html, along with links therein to other similar situations.

Particularly see my July 2013 post "How's this for patient rights? Affinity Medical Center manager: file a safety complaint, and I'll plaster it to your head!" at http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2013/07/hows-this-for-patient-rights-affinity.html, where a judge had to intervene in a situation of apparent employee harassment for complaints about patient safety risks.  Also see my post about an open letter to the Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) dated August 15, 2013, at http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2013/11/another-survey-on-ehrs-affinity-medical.html.

That plays into the issue of higher costs. The Deloitte survey also found that three of four physicians think electronic health records “increase costs.” There are three reasons. First, physicians can no longer see as many patients as they once did. Doctors must then charge higher prices for the fewer patients they see. This is also true for EHRs’ high implementation costs—the second culprit. A November report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that the average five-physician primary-care practice would spend $162,000 to implement the system, followed by $85,000 in first-year maintenance costs. Like any business, physicians pass these costs along to their customers—patients.

Then there’s the third cause: Small private practices often find it difficult to pay such sums, so they increasingly turn to hospitals for relief. In recent years, hospitals have purchased swaths of independent and physician-owned practices, which accounted for two-thirds of medical practices a decade ago but only half today. Two studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association and one in Health Affairs published in 2014 found that, in the words of the latter, this “vertical integration” leads to “higher hospital prices and spending.”

I do not enjoy the fact that this occurred to my own personal physicians who are now employees of a hospital against which I am substitute plaintiff for my deceased mother, whose injuries were EHR-related.  See "On EHR Warnings: Sure, The Experts Think You Shouldn't Ride A Bicycle Into The Eye Of A Hurricane, But We Have Our Own Theory" at
http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2013/09/on-ehr-warnings-sure-experts-think-you.html, actually penned in 2011.

Proponents of electronic health records nonetheless claim that EHRs decrease record-keeping errors and increase efficiency. My own experience again indicates otherwise and is corroborated by research.

The EHR system assumes that the patient in front of me is the “average patient.” When I’m in the treatment room, I must fill out a template to demonstrate to the federal government that I made “meaningful use” of the system. This rigidity inhibits my ability to tailor my questions and treatment to my patient’s actual medical needs. It promotes tunnel vision in which physicians become so focused on complying with the EHR work sheet that they surrender a degree of critical thinking and medical investigation.

"Critical thinking always, or your patient's dead" - Victor P. Satinsky MD, heart surgery pioneer, Hahenemann Hospital.

Distractions to the doctor-patient interaction are unwelcome and damn well better have a very high payback - which the experiment with health IT is showing is simply not there at the stage of development of this commercial technology in 2015.

Not surprisingly, a recent study in Perspectives in Health Information Management found that electronic health records encourage errors that can “endanger patient safety or decrease the quality of care.” America saw a real-life example during the recent Ebola crisis, when “patient zero” in Dallas, Thomas Eric Duncan, received a delayed diagnosis due in part to problems with EHRs.

That event could have led to catastrophe, but such errors are daily occurrences in hospitals all across the country.  See the many posts on this blog of EHR risks under the index link http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/search/label/glitch.

Congress has devoted scant attention to this issue, instead focusing on the larger ObamaCare debate. But ending the mandatory electronic-health-record program should be a plank in the Republican Party’s health-care agenda. For all the good intentions of the politicians who passed them, electronic health records have harmed my practice and my patients.

Dr. Singer practices general surgery in Phoenix and is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.

I would change that to "... ending the mandatory electronic-health-record program should be a plank in the government's health-care agenda."

Finally, of the author's adjunct affiliation, it seems bad health IT affects physicians all across the political spectrum.

-- SS


Anonymous said...

Please clarify/confirm..? Bush started this by mandating EHR during his presidency. He, his family along with Obama (and Michelle) are all cozy w the HIT industry.

So much money to "revolutionize" medicine. What a hoax.

Anonymous said...

HITECH: A scandal like none other.

InformaticsMD said...


Bush started ONC to promote health IT adoption as a voluntary initiative. Nothing was mandatory.

The current administration added Medicare penalties for non-adopters of ONC-"certified" systems starting in 2015 (now). Adoption is still not "mandatory" although that's a pretty big stick for many doctors, clinics and hospitals.

-- SS