This month, Bob Wachter, MD, MHM, chief of the division of hospital medicine at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center and well known for his work in patient safety and healthcare quality, debuts his latest book, The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age. The book explores the realities of U.S. efforts to bring healthcare into the digital age.
Dr. Wachter is especially concerned with the consequences—both intended and unintended—of health information technology. The Hospitalist spoke with Dr. Wachter about why he wrote the book and asked him about some of the burning issues facing hospitalists today.
Question: In the book’s introduction, you state that while computers are preventing medical errors, they are also causing new kinds of mistakes. One was a case at your hospital in which an adolescent was given a 39-fold overdose of a routine antibiotic. What was it about this case that galvanized you to write the book?
Answer: A few weeks after the error, I attended the root cause analysis, and my jaw just fell and fell. I was struck by the disconnect between what we’d been saying for years—‘When we finally get computers, we’re going to fix so many of these problems’—and the reality, that in about as wired an environment as you can imagine, we managed to give a kid 40 pills. [The patient had a seizure but survived.] Clearly, the case was partly about a glitchy computer system. But the larger problems related to the troubling people-computer interfaces. That’s what I wanted to address in the book.
Q: How did you secure buy-in from the hospital, the involved providers, and the family to write about the case?
A: In 2004, I wrote a book, Internal Bleeding, in which we presented many cases of medical mistakes, some of them fatal. We managed to keep the cases anonymous, and from this and similar projects, I developed a reputation for doing this kind of thing diplomatically and carefully. I think that’s why the risk manager didn’t reject the idea out of hand, and, ultimately, my CMO and CEO agreed to it as well. After that, I approached the involved clinicians and the patient and his mother. To everyone’s credit—the providers, the administrators, and the patient and family—they believed that this case was so important that we should be open and honest about it. My experience is that people are sometimes trying to find some meaning in a horrible event, and that meaning can come from helping to prevent a similar case in the future.
Q: What are some of the tensions that affect the interface between frontline providers and healthcare IT?
A: In the book, I contrast the way the healthcare IT companies build their systems—with relatively little input from clinicians—with the philosophy at Boeing, where they bring pilots into the process to develop cockpit computers. There is a powerful concept known as “adaptive change,” as contrasted with technical change. Technical change is like a cookbook: Put in a set of rules, have people follow them, and everything works out fine. Adaptive change is more complex and subtle; it requires the intense involvement of frontline workers.
We made the mistake of treating health IT as technical change, but it is probably the hardest adaptive change we’ve ever tried. My goal was to create a national conversation about this, which is what we need if we’re going to get it right.
Gretchen Henkel is a freelance writer in California.