- Posted on the Healthcare Renewal Blog May 17, 2013 -

It seems to have taken awhile, but organized medicine seems to finally be recognizing that today's commercial health IT is not quite the revolutionizing, transformative, plug-and-play panacea to healthcare's ills it is often touted as:

AMA Wire
May 15, 2013
AMA board chair: HHS should address EHR usability issues immediately

The government needs to act quickly to remedy the impaired usability of electronic health records (EHR) if the technology's touted benefits are to be realized, AMA Board of Trustees Chair Steven J. Stack, MD (left), told officials during a federal hearing last week.

"The AMA and most physicians believe that, done well, EHRs have the potential to improve patient care," Dr. Stack, an emergency physician in Lexington, Ky., said during his 30-minute testimony. "At present, however, these EHRs present substantial challenges to the physicians and other clinicians now required to use them."

He emphasized that many of today's EHR systems require significant changes before they can deliver the promised outcomes. Referring to Medicare's meaningful use program, he pointed to undesired consequences of pushing EHR systems on physicians before the technology was completely ready for prime time.

"Immediately" is strong language.

I note that the phrase "health IT done well" is a term I've been using since 1998 at my now-Drexel-based health IT teaching website at http://www.ischool.drexel.edu/faculty/ssilverstein/cases, as well as at this blog.

Penned by me at my aforementioned Drexel graduate teaching site, originally housed on AOL, in 1998 and still appearing in its main essay:

... While clinical IT is now potentially capable of achieving many of the benefits long claimed for it such as improved medical quality and efficiency, reduced costs, better medical research and drugs, earlier disease detection, and so forth, there is a major caveat and essential precondition:  the benefits will be realized only if clinical IT is done well.  For if clinical IT is not done well, as often occurs in today’s environment of medical quick fixes and seemingly unquestioning exuberance about IT, the technology can be injurious to medical practice and biomedical R&D, and highly wasteful of scarce healthcare capital and resources. 

Those two short words “done well” mask an underlying, profound, and, as yet, largely unrecognized (or ignored) complexity.  This website is about the meaning of "done well" in the context of clinical computing, a computing subspecialty with issues and required expertise quite distinct from traditional MIS (management information systems, or business-related) computing.

(I have more recently switched to the easier-to-parse terminology of "good health IT" vs. "bad health IT" after discussions with Dr Jon Patrick at U. Sydney during my visit Down Under last summer, http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2012/08/my-presentation-to-health-informatics.html.)

I've also heard "not ready for prime time" before.  It is a phrase I used in speaking with a New York Times reporter that then appeared in the Oct. 8, 2012 NYT article "The Ups and Downs of Electronic Medical Records" (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/09/health/the-ups-and-downs-of-electronic-medical-records-the-digital-doctor.html?pagewanted=2) by Milt Freudenheim, October 8, 2012, where I am quoted and this blog cited:

... Critics are deeply skeptical that electronic records are ready for prime time. “The technology is being pushed, with no good scientific basis,” said Dr. Scot M. Silverstein, a health I.T. expert at Drexel University who reports on medical records problems on the blog Health Care Renewal. He says testing these systems on patients without their consent “raises ethical questions.”

The AMA Board chair went on to opine:

"Attempting to transform the entire health system in such a rapid and proscriptive manner has compelled providers to purchase tools not yet optimized to the end-user's needs and that often impeded, rather than enable, efficient clinical care," he said.

He noted that physicians are "prolific technology adopters" but that adoption of EHR systems has required federal incentives because the technology still is "at an immature stage of development."

My near-exact terminology has been that the technology is still experimental.

"EHRs have been and largely remain clunky, confusing and complex," he said.

Perhaps he read my ten-part series on the health IT mission hostile user experience at this blog, at http://www.tinyurl.com/hostileuserexper.

According to a recent survey by AmericanEHR Partners, physician dissatisfaction with EHR systems has increased. Nearly one-third of those surveyed in 2012 said they were "very dissatisfied" with their system, and 39 percent said they would not recommend their EHR system to a colleague—up from 24 percent in 2010.

A survey I posted about in Jan. 2010 is here:  "An Honest Physician Survey on EHR's", http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2010/01/honest-physician-survey-on-ehrs.html

Dr. Stack spoke at a "listening session" hosted by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The agencies coordinated the session to examine how a marked increase in code levels billed for some Medicare services might be tied to the increased use of EHRs.

Dr. Stack noted that some Medicare carriers have begun denying payment for charts that are too similar to other records.

"In this instance, even when clinicians are appropriately using the EHR, a tool with which they are frustrated and the use of which the federal government has mandated under threat of financial penalty, they are now being accused of inappropriate behavior, being economically penalized, and being instructed ‘de facto' to re‐engineer non‐value‐added variation into their clinical notes," he said. "This is an appalling Catch‐22 for physicians."

"Mandated under threat of financial penalty" has been one of my stated "cart before the horse" issues with HITECH (e.g., http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2010/10/cart-before-horse-again-institute-of.html).

Dr. Stack advised officials that three key actions are necessary to rectify these issues with EHR systems:
  • The ONC promptly should address EHR usability concerns raised by physicians and add usability criteria to the EHR certification process.
  • CMS should provide clear and direct guidance to physicians concerning use of EHRs for documentation, coding and billing.
  • Stage 2 of the meaningful use program should allow more flexibility for physicians to meet requirements as EHR systems are improved.
The AMA will continue to work with federal agencies to improve EHR systems and the Medicare meaningful use program.

I've been calling for usability evaluation to be added to the certification process, including in comments during public comment periods to HHS, for some time.

What the AMA Board Chair is apparently missing, though, is health IT safety.  They should perhaps read my post on the recent ECRI Institute Deep Dive Study on health IT risk - itself based on a report in their own AMNews (amednews.com) publication ("Peering Underneath the Iceberg's Water Level: AMNews on the New ECRI Deep Dive Study of Health IT Events", http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2013/02/peering-underneath-icebergs-water-level.html).

I don't think any prudent person would consider a 9-week study of 36 hospitals with volunteered reports of 171 health information technology-related problems, where eight of the incidents reported involved patient harm and three may have contributed to patient deaths, information to ignore.

-- SS

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