Friday, October 12, 2012

A Response to the NY Times Article "Ups and Downs of EMRs" So Full Of The Usual Refrains, I Am Using It To Throw A Spotlight On Those Endlessly-Repeated Memes

My Google search alert turned up a response to the Oct. 8, 2012 NY Times article The Ups and Downs of Electronic Medical Records by Milt Freudenheim.

It was posted on the blog of a company and is filled with the usual rhetoric and perverse excuse-making.

It is, in fact, so laden with typical industry refrains and excuse-making that I am using it to throw a spotlight on the misconceptions and canards proffered by that industry in defense of its uncontrolled practices:

A Response to the NY Times on Electronic Medical Records
Posted on October 10, 2012 by Kathy McCoy

A recent article by the New York Times entitled “The Ups and Downs of Electronic Medical Records” has generated a lot of discussion among the HIT community and among healthcare professionals.

It’s an excellent article, looking at concerns that a number of healthcare professionals have about the efficiency, accuracy and reliability of EMRs. One source quoted, Mark V. Pauly, professor of health care management at the Wharton School, said the health I.T. industry was moving in the right direction but that it had a long way to go before it would save real money.

“Like so many other things in health care,” Dr. Pauly said, “the amount of accomplishment is well short of the amount of cheerleading.”

Seriously? I can’t believe we’re still having this conversation.  [Emphasis in the original - ed.] 

I can believe it -- and quite seriously -- as it's a "conversation" long suppressed by the health IT industry and its pundits.

Seriously, I can't believe the comment about "it's an excellent article"; that comment appears to merely be a distraction for the interjection of attacks upon the substance of selfsame "excellent" article.

In a world where I can go to Lowe’s and they can tell me what color paint I bought a year ago, or I can call Papa John’s and they know what my usual pizza order is, how can we expect less from our healthcare systems?

Because healthcare is not at all like buying paint and ordering a pizza, being several orders of magnitude more demanding and complex and on many different planes (e.g, educational, organizational, social and ethical to name a few).  Only the most avid IT hyper-enthusiast (or those prone to ignoratio elenchi) would make such a risible comparison.

I recently joined a new healthcare system, and I have been impressed and pleased by their use of EMR and technology. I no longer have to worry about whether I told the new specialist everything he or she needed to know about my health history; it’s in my record. I no longer have to remember when I had my last tetanus shot; it’s in my record.

My care is coordinated between doctors, labs, etc., better than it ever has been before. In the past, I felt as though my healthcare was a giant patchwork quilt—and some of the stitches were coming loose, frankly. This new system with a widely used EMR, to me, is a huge improvement.

The problem with this argument is that n=1, and the going's not yet gotten tough, such as it had for people injured or killed as a result of the experimental state of current health IT.

Granted, the problems cited in the article are real and need to be addressed. 

Another dubious statement to be followed with excuses ... here it is:

However, the article itself mentions some redundancies that are in place to insure that a system going down doesn’t throw the entire Mayo Clinic into freefall. And certainly, additional redundancies may be needed to insure that prescriptions aren’t incorrectly sent to a pharmacy for the wrong patient, etc.

Those "redundancies" are not complete, do not cover for all aspects of enterprise health IT when it is down, and necessarily compromise patient care when they have to be called upon.   I, for one, a physician, would not enjoy being a patient nor taking care of patients when the "IT lights" go out.

Do doctors and medical staff need to learn how to code correctly so that they aren’t accused of cloning? Yes—but that’s a relatively easy problem to fix. The problem has already been identified, and training has already begun to address the issue.

Cloning of notes and "coding correctly" are two entirely different issues.  Easy to fix?  The health IT industry has been saying all its problems are easy to fix, i.e., in version 2.0 ... for the past several decades, when few if any problems have been.

I have been through this type of problem before, as have many of you, with new systems. It’s called a learning curve, and it’s relatively easy to work through with patience and determination. I have encountered situations before where the team I was working with threw up their hands when they ran into problems learning a new database system and said “It doesn’t work.” Yet in time, they learned to love the system—and some of the biggest doubters became the experts on it.

I surmise that since they were forced into using it, the Stockholm Syndrome was likely at work.  However, speculation aside, the seemingly banal statement that "it’s called a learning curve" is an ethical abomination.  The subjects of these systems are human beings, not lab rats.

Further, health IT is not a "database system."  It is an enterprise clinical resource and clinician workflow control and regulation deviceThis statement illustrates the dangers of having personnel of a technical focus in any kind of authority role in health ITTheir education and worldview is far too narrow.

Healthcare professionals overcome more difficult challenges than this every day; they bring people back from the dead, for Pete’s sake! I have no doubt that they will adapt and learn to utilize EMRs so that they improve healthcare and take patient care to levels currently unimaginable.

Wrong solution, completely ignoring (or perhaps I should say willfully ignorant of) the fact that there's good health IT and bad health IT (GHIT/BHIT).  The IT industry needs to adapt to healthcare professionals, not the other way around, by producing GHIT and banishing BHIT.  This point needs to be frequently repeated, I surmise, due to tremendous disrespect for healthcare professionals by the industry.

And to say, as was quoted in the article: “The technology is being pushed, with no good scientific basis”? Ridiculous, with all due deference to Dr. Scot M. Silverstein, a health I.T. expert at Drexel University who reports on medical records problems on the blog Health Care Renewal and made the statement.

The only thing "ridiculous" is that Ms. McCoy was clearly too lazy to check the very blog she cites, as conspicuously cited in the NY Times article itself.  (That assumes she has the education and depth to understand its arguments and copious citations.)

Lack of RCT's, supportive studies weak at best with literature conflicting on value, National Research Council indicating current health IT does not support clinician cognitive processes, known harms but IOM/FDA both admitting the magnitude of EHR-related harms is unknown, usability poor and in need of significant remediation, cost savings in doubt - these are just a few examples of where the science (as medicine knows it) does not in 2012 support hundreds of billions of dollars for a national rollout of experimental health IT.

I wish it were not so, but alas, that is the current reality.

Database management of information has been proven to be an improvement on paper records in just about every industry there is; healthcare will not be an exception.

Ignoring the repeated "database" descriptor, I agree, eventually, that electronic information systems will improve upon paper.  That's why I began a postdoctoral fellowship in Medical Informatics two decades ago.  However, the technology in its present form interferes with care and is an impediment to the collection and accuracy of that data, and the well being of its subjects, e.g.:  

  • Next-generation phenotyping of electronic health records, George Hripcsak,David J Albers, J Am Med Inform Assoc, doi:10.1136/amiajnl-2012-001145 .  The national adoption of electronic health records (EHR) promises to make an unprecedented amount of data available for clinical research, but the data are complex, inaccurate, and frequently missing, and the record reflects complex processes [economic, social, political etc. that bias the data - ed.] aside from the patient's physiological state.

As I've written before, a good or even average paper system is better for patients than bad health IT, and the latter prevails over good health IT in 2012.

These issues seem chronically to be of little interest to the hyper-enthusiasts as I've written here and here (perhaps the author of the Medical Billing blog post could use her wrist and eyes and navigate there and read).

Is it hard? Yes, it’s hard. To quote the movie A League of Their Own, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.”

It's even harder to do when apologists make excuses shielding a very dysfunctional industry.

Everyone can’t do it. But I have no doubt that healthcare professionals will do it. Remember that part about bringing people back from the dead? This is a lesser miracle.

If qualified healthcare professionals were in charge of the computerization efforts, there would be a smoother path.

However, that is sadly not the case.  It will not happen until enough pressure is brought to bear on the IT industry and its apologists, which I believe will most likely only happen though coercion, not debate.

Finally, the endless stream of excuses and rhetoric that confuse non-healthcare professionals, such as typical patients who are the subjects of today's premature grand health IT experiment and our decision-makers in Washington, needs to be relentlessly challenged.  The stakes are the well being of anyone needing medical care.

-- SS

Note:  my formal reply to the Medical Billing blog post above awaits moderation.  I am reproducing it here:

  1. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Dear Ms. McCoy,

    Will all due deference, your own experience with EHR’s is obviously limited.

    Your comments demonstrate an apparent lay level of understanding of medicine and healthcare informatics.

    “Ridiculous?” “Learning curve?” I.e., experimentation on non-consenting human subjects putting them at risk with an unregulated, unvetted medical technology? That is, as kindly as I can put it, a perverse statement.

    Perhaps I am too harsh. You clearly didn’t check the link to the Healthcare Renewal blog conspicuously placed in the NYT article by Milt Freudenheim.

    I suggest you should educate yourself on the science and ethics of medicine and healthcare informatics.

    I am posting the gist of your comments, and my reply, at that blog.

    I do not think most truly informed patients would agree to being guinea pigs as your comments suggest is simply part of the “leaning curve.”

    Scot Silverstein, M.D.

I'll bet the author of the post never heard critique like this coming from today's typical abused-into-submission, learned helplessness-afflicted physicians.

A bit harsh?  Lives are at stake.

-- SS


Steve Lucas said...

I recently spoke to a more than usual frenzied doctor. Asking what the problem was I was told they just introduce an EMR, and they were having problems with the learning curve.

Did they know the vendor? No.

Did they know that EMR’s had failed on national levels. No.

Did they know if the system would communicate with our two local hospitals? No.

What they did know was technology was good, and that “meaningful use” incentives would produce an additional revenue stream for the practice.

I suppose the above may be true if they all survive the learning curve.

Steve Lucas

InformaticsMD said...

Steve Lucas writes:

I suppose the above may be true if they all survive the learning curve.

And if all their patients survive the 'learning curve.'

-- SS

Anonymous said...

Eureka, if each organ in each body, each blood vessels and nerve in each body, and each medicine and each dose had a unique identifier, medical care can determine the color that the aorta was painted last year!

Michael Shihjay Chen said...

Great post. I really liked how you have gone after each of these claims by the health IT industry and especially "the learning curve". As an ex-solo family physician (my blog is here: that decided to bite the bullet and make my own EHR that was indeed usable despite being "uncertified" because I could no longer afford the "certified" EHRs, I wholeheartedly agree with your claims. I wish this issue was really on the minds of doctors when they have to consider all the hoops with the threat of reduced reimbursement if they don't comply. If there was a way for physicians to rise up in solidarity and say no to this rigged system and "reboot" this health IT direction because we as physicians are clearly not in the driver's seat and we'll never meet the 10 commandments set out by Dr. Barnett...the horse is out of the barn. I have more to say about this in my open-source EHR project blog at