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.
“Lack of interoperability—preventing access to patient data from previous physician or other hospital visits—makes a mockery of a coordinated, patient-centered healthcare system,” says HIT researcher Ross Koppel, PhD, faculty member of University of Pennsylvania’s Sociology Department and School of Medicine.
Although Dr. Rogers acknowledges that HIT has the potential to revolutionize healthcare systems, boost quality and safety, and lower cost, he maintains that current HIT products fall short of those ambitious goals. “Vendors typically regard usability of their products as a convenience request by clinicians; any errors are regarded as training issues for physicians,” Dr. Rogers says. “But the way that data is presented on a screen matters—if it is difficult to input or retrieve data and leads to cognitive or process errors, that’s a product redesign issue for which vendors should be held accountable.”
Dr. Koppel says many HIT systems originated from billing system applications “and were not initially designed with the clinical perspective in mind. Hospitalists have to be particularly focused on usability of HIT systems when it comes to patient-safety impacts. They’re not the canary in the coal mine, they’re the miners—often the teachers guiding other clinicians on HIT use.”
SHM fully supports many of the IOM’s recommendations to improve the safety and functionality of HIT systems, including these as stated in an email to its members:
- Remove contractual restrictions, promote public reporting of safety issues, and put a system in place for independent investigations that drive patient-safety improvement.
- Establish standards and a common infrastructure for “interoperable” data exchange across systems.
- Create dual accountability between vendors and providers to address safety concerns that might require
- changes in an IT product’s functionality or design.
- Promote research on usability and human-factors design, safer implementation, and sociotechnical systems associated with HIT.
- Promote education of safety, quality, and reliability principles in design and implementation of HIT among all levels of the workforce, including frontline clinicians and staff, hospital IT, and quality teams—as well as IT vendors themselves.
There also are ongoing efforts in the private sector to improve HIT system functionality. For example, the HIMSS CDS Guidebook Series, of which Dr. Osheroff is lead editor and author and Dr. Rogers is a contributing author, is a respected repository of information synthesizing and vetting critical guidance for the effective implementation of clinical decision support (CDS).
“We’re also working with Greg Maynard [senior vice president of SHM’s Center for Hospital Innovation & Improvement] to use the collaborative’s tools to disseminate clinical-decision-support best practices for improving VTE prophylaxis rates,” Dr. Osheroff notes.
Hospitalists, as central players in quality improvement (QI), standardization, and care coordination, are natural choices as HIT champions, with valuable insight into how HIT systems should be customized to accommodate workflows and order sets in an optimal fashion, Dr. Rogers says.
“As critical as we are about the status of current HIT systems, we believe that systems can be designed more effectively to meet our needs,” he says. “By adopting many of the improvements enumerated in the IOM report, hospitalists are uniquely positioned to advance HIT to help achieve the goals of safer, higher-quality, and more efficient care.”
Christopher Guadagnino is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.
- Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. More than 100,000 health care providers paid for using electronic health records. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services website. Available at: http://www.cms.gov/apps/media/press/release.asp?Counter=4383&intNumPerPage=10&checkDate=&checkKey=&srchType=1&numDays=3500&sr. Accessed July 31, 2012.
- Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. 2012: the year of meaningful use. The CMS Blog website. Available at: http://blog.cms.gov/2012/03/23/2012-the-year-of-meaningful-use. Accessed July 18, 2012.
- Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Health IT and patient safety: building safer systems for better care. Institute of Medicine of the National Academies website. Available at: http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2011/Health-IT-and-Patient-Safety-Building-Safer-Systems-for-Better-Care.aspx. Accessed July 14, 2012.