Earlier this summer, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that more than 100,000 healthcare providers and 48% of all eligible hospitals are using electronic health records (EHRs) that meet federal standards, and they have benefited from federal incentive programs to do so.1
According to CMS acting administrator Marilyn Tavenner, meeting that provider goal makes 2012 the “Year of Meaningful Use.” She also says healthcare providers have recognized the potential of EHRs to cut down on paperwork, eliminate duplicate screenings and tests, and facilitate better, safer, patient-centered care.2
Belying CMS’ celebratory declarations, however, are concerns among experts that health information technology’s (HIT) actual use falls short of its promise—and might even endanger patients—due to shortcomings in system interoperability, safety, accountability, and other issues.
“Federal funding of IT was a step in the right direction, but it has also created a guaranteed customer base for electronic medical records, so vendors have less incentive to improve their products to meet clinicians needs,” says Kendall M. Rogers, MD, CPE, FACP, SFHM, chair of SHsM’s IT Executive Committee and chief of hospital medicine at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center School of Medicine in Albuquerque. “We want systems that help us make better clinical decisions and allow us to work more efficiently. Unfortunately, many hospitalists are frustrated with existing HIT systems, knowing how much better they need to be. It can be a dangerous gamble to push rapid adoption of potentially unsafe systems in hospitals.”
Questioning HIT Safety
Health IT experts affirm that potential danger. Jerry Osheroff, MD, FACP, FACMI, principal and founder of TMIT Consulting LLC and former chief clinical informatics officer for Thomson Reuters Healthcare, says HIT “is most effective when it gets the right information to the right people, through the right channels, in the right format, at the right point in the workflow. The danger comes when it gets one of those five ‘rights’ wrong; that can lead to distraction, confusion, wasted time, missed improvement opportunities, and safety concerns.”
Last November, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a scathing critique of HIT’s current ability to ensure patient safety.3 As the federal government invests billions of dollars to encourage hospitals and healthcare providers to adopt HIT, the IOM report said, improvements in care and safety are not yet established, and little evidence exists that quantifies the magnitude of the risk associated with HIT problems—partly because many HIT vendors discourage providers from sharing patient-safety concerns with nondisclosure and “hold harmless” provisions in contracts that shift the liability of unsafe HIT features to care providers.3
The report also cautioned that serious errors involving these technologies—including medication dosing errors, failure to detect fatal illnesses, and treatment delays due to complex data interfaces and poor human-computer interactions or loss of data—have led to several reported patient deaths and injuries. Furthermore, there is no way to publicly track adverse outcomes because there is no systematic regulation or authority to collect, analyze, and disseminate such information.
The report concluded that the current state of safety and health IT is not acceptable and that regulation of the industry might be necessary because the private sector to date has not taken sufficient action on its own to improve HIT safety.
SHM applauds the IOM report as an overdue and direly needed call to action, Dr. Rogers says. SHM sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services underscoring the importance of the IOM report.
“In our practices, we have experienced the threats to patient safety outlined in the report: poor user-interface design, poor workflow, complex data interfaces, lack of system interoperability, and lack of sufficient vendor action to build safer products,” Dr. Rogers says.