Thursday, January 14, 2010

Meaningfully Experimental Protocols and Interfaces to Nowhere? Nagging Questions On Healthcare IT Remain

Despite a massive push in our (yet-unnamed) U.S. national program for health IT in the past year (which I shall christen as the NPfIT in the HHS), nagging questions about healthcare IT remain.

The first regards the Public Comment period on the "Meaningful Use" criteria for HIT, part of the Medicare and Medicaid Programs; Electronic Health Record Incentive Program Proposed Rule:

This proposed rule would implement the provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) (Pub. L. 111-5) that provide incentive payments to eligible professionals (EPs) and eligible hospitals participating in Medicare and Medicaid programs that adopt and meaningfully use certified electronic health record (EHR) technology. The proposed rule would specify the initial criteria an EP and eligible hospital must meet in order to qualify for the incentive payment; calculation of the incentive payment amounts; payment adjustments under Medicare for covered professional services and inpatient hospital services provided by EPs and eligible hospitals failing to meaningfully use certified EHR technology; and other program participation requirements.

Perhaps submitting comments in the public forum of a blog will spread the message further than through the method above...

As I wrote in Oct. 2009 at "Washington Post Article: Electronic medical records not seen as a cure-all", there is a major problem with the term "meaningful use" itself:

This [term "meaningful use"] is an example of putting the cart before the horse, and is a semantically-based, self contained logical fallacy of sorts. If a health IT system is harmful, the term "meaningful use" is itself Orwellian. If we don't know if HIT is beneficial, or have doubts, then such as term presupposes that health IT is inherently beneficial. A better term would have been "good faith use" - use based on the faith or hope that health IT will have an overall positive effect. The term "meaningful use" jumps the gun and is more a political slogan than a "meaningful term."

I go further. Use of a term that a priori assumes some outcome reflects the antithesis of science. The term "meaningful use" in the domain of technology implies that those following the recipe for use of some technology, as well as their subjects, will experience meaningful outcomes. A parallel is in the logical fallacy of begging the question or circular argument, where the conclusion of an argument is among its premises.

'A priori knowledge' is knowledge known independently of experience, i.e., from reason alone; 'a posteriori knowledge' is knowledge proven through experience.

To say we as a society have a priori knowledge of the benefits of health IT would unarguably be an absurdity; to say we have uncontested a posteriori knowledge of same is, quite simply, a lie. Evidence of the portable, healthcare-improving qualities of health IT in its current form has been weak, and the literature challenging this often technologically-deterministic position is growing.

In scientific research, an experiment (Latin: ex- periri, "to try out") is a method of investigating causal relationships among variables, or to test a hypothesis. An experiment is a cornerstone of the empirical approach to acquiring data about the world and is used in both natural sciences and social sciences.

The truth is that healthcare IT remains an experiment, using virtual medical IT devices that are entirely unregulated. The "meaningful use" criteria, basically arrived at by opinions and committee consensus, must be viewed in that framework. (I note that some NPfIT experiments in other lands have not been very successful).

When the criteria are viewed in, say, the framework of a NIH grant proposal for testing some new technology, the correct term is not "meaningful use", it is "experimental protocol" or "research protocol." The government is paying for physicians to follow an experimental protocol, reimbursing them for part of the expense and labor, in the hope that the experiment will have beneficial effects and no major adverse side effects on the practice and financing of medicine.

If one accepts the premise that HIT -- and our collective understanding of how to design and implement it -- is fully proven and ready for societal rollout (which is the operative assumption of our government - witness the duress of penalties), then one is not following the methodologies of science. If, on the other hand, one accepts that it *is* an experimental technology, then one should also accept that the current rollout plans are nonscientific in the extreme. This is simply not how ethical biomedical research is conducted, e.g, without the consent of the subjects (patients) -- indeed, with actual coercion of the healthcare professionals -- and without regulation of the experimental technologies.

I therefore ask the following nagging but important question: why is the term "meaningful use" even in the lexicon of the U.S. NPfIT in the HHS? Why should physicians buy into this program?

Why should they not instead refuse to participate in an experiment that could waste their time or cause adverse consequences for which they are liable? Why should those who do participate not calculate the person-hours required to perform the experimental tasks as specified by the experimental protocol, and charge for their time and labor accordingly?

(See some related points at the vendor post "Readers Respond: The Exorbitant Cost of Meaningful Use" at the EMR Straight Talk site. Note: I have no relationships with, or connections to, this vendor.)

Further, what is missing in the experiment of unregulated IT medical devices is robust risk assessment, adverse events reporting, and perhaps most importantly, patient informed consent. It is also unclear if the "hold harmless" and "defects nondisclosure" clauses traditional in IT contracting, and that likely violate healthcare leadership fiduciary responsibilities and joint commission safety standards, will be forbidden in this grand experiment.

A second nagging question arises regarding a somewhat perplexing announcement: a HIT vendor's product that provides data interchange (i.e., an interface apparatus) between EMRs and other medical devices has received FDA pre-marketing clearance, making it available for sale.

On an Interface to Nowhere:

Thousands of medical devices are used in hospitals, physician offices and homes to help clinicians provide better care to patients. Medical devices are used to monitor patient vital signs, infuse medication and even help patients breathe. These devices capture important information about patient health, but oftentimes that information resides in disparate systems outside of the patient's electronic health record (EHR). To solve this problem, [vendor] created the CareAware device connectivity architecture to connect medical devices to the EHR, enabling bi-directional data sharing between medical devices and the patient record. The[vendor] CareAware iBus, a solution that connects medical devices to the EHR to support the entire care process, recently received 510(k) pre-market clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is now available in the United States and all U.S. territories.

Here is the question:

How is it possible that an intermediary apparatus to interface medical devices to an EHR can be subject to FDA approval, but the EHRs themselves that this intermediary apparatus interfaces the devices to can be entirely unregulated? EHRs are not subject to FDA approval or any other regulatory agency's evaluation and approval whatsover.

Further, why is the FDA marginalized to the point where the only component of HIT they evaluate and approve are interfaces?

This is a somewhat jarring violation of common sense and first principles of systems thinking: that systems should be evaluated in their entirety, as unexpected adverse consequences are often the result of system-related failures exacerbated by the "weak links" in the system. This probably also violates the principles of resilience engineering, a term I first learned after presenting on IT difficulties to the IEEE Medical Technology Policy Committee a few years ago.

With regard to these nagging questions, I'm just asking. Let the reader decide if these are reasonable questions regarding their medical care.

I doubt I will receive official answers to my lèse majesté.

-- SS

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gee, ya just wonder if the ONCHIT and the HHS, on a larger scale, is being run by the HIT vendors trade associations. I am just wonderin.

Why would they want the FDA to protect the safety of patients from the dangers of their devices?