Monday, July 18, 2011

The Usefulness and Uselessness of Electronic Medical Records

Nothing is so useless as a general maxim.

Lord MacCaulay (1800-1859), On Machiavelli (1827)

I dare say that I have worked off my fundamental formula on you that the chief end of man is to frame general propositions and that no general proposition is worth a damn.

O.W Holmes, Jr. (1809-1904), as quoted in The Practical Cogitator, 1962

July 18, 2011-
The general maxim and general proposition behind the rationale of a national interoperative electronic medical record system in every physician’s office is that you can never get too much information and that government can use digital data to cut costs and improve care.

The Problem

Sounds good, doesn’t it? The problem is that so far, after nearly a decade of advancing this maxim and proposition, perhaps 80% of physicians in independent practice aren’t buying. And this, in face of the reality, that government has proposing spending $27 billion to get EHRs off the ground. And beginning this year, CMS will start offering as much as $44,000 per physician over a staggered five years if physicians make “meaningful” use of “certified” medical records. Many doctors regard such rhetoric as empty talk that will accompanied by unreasonable bureaucratic requirements, as surely as dawn following night.

Why no “buy-in” among doctors? Why have two national IT coordinators appointed by Obama, David Brailer,ND, in 2005 and David Blumenthal, MD, in 2011, resigned in frustration over the failure to persuade doctors that gathering electronic data and measuring care is a good thing? If universal EHRs are such a good thing, why have physicians and hospitals not raced to embrace EHRs?

As Steve Lohr of the New York Times, a leading thinker in health care innovation, says in yesterday’s Times (“Seeing Promise and Peril in Digital Records,”

“What is beyond doubt is that the promise of digital records will be unfulfilled if doctors refuse to adopt them, because they regard the technology as cumbersome, time consuming, and possibly dangerous.”

To date, most doctors, except for enthusiastic early adopters, IT nerds, and those in large organizations, have found EHRs “useless” in their daily work. EHRs cost excess money, show little return on investment, change the very nature of practice, slow productivity, tell no narrative tales, cause conflicts among staff and colleagues, require extensive record keeping, are subject to hacking, and, more often than not, are useless as a tool for communicating to colleagues, hospitals, and other doctors outside your practice.

When the government establishes “usability standards” that work, maybe doctors will come on board the electronic train. Until then, says Dr. Edward H. Shortliffe , a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, “Usability is going to be the single greatest impediment to physician acceptance. “
If EHRs are not made more useful and soon, universal digital records may turn out to be a giant boondoggle rather than a scientific bonanza.

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