Monday, September 11, 2017

HITECH Editorials in the NEJM...

Since my Labor Day message to colleagues dovetails so well with these editorials, I did not want to miss the opportunity to comment on them.  They appear to be written by people with policy interests in this information technology takeover of clinical medicine.  They are mildly critical but totally miss the mark on what a catastrophe this government roll out has been.  The question any taxpayer should ask is why any other outcome would be expected.  Software and network implementations world wide and at the level of the US government have led to colossal failures.  Multibillion dollar investments  that at some point were abandoned.  The only difference in this case is that the government is not the actual client.  The federal approach to health care - apart from the brief foray of FBI agents raiding physicians offices to see if they made any coding violations is to set up payments for proxies and let them hash things out with providers.  The primitive approach of marginal incentives that are really weighted as penalties is supposed to facilitate the whole mess.  The mess would get implemented either way if you ask me.  There are tens of thousands of executive and mid level health care executives chomping at the bit for a project like this to mismanage.  And they have mismanaged it well.  Government leverage makes it difficult to refuse.

The initial editorial by Washington and  co-authors (1) focuses on the success of getting hospitals and physicians on the electronic health record (EHR).  They present a graphic showing the steep increase in EHR use over the 2004 to 2015 decade.  The acute care hospital curve ends at essentially 98-100% for certified EHRs and office based practices are at 90%.  The article rightly points out that physicians have borne the brunt of the implementation and how physicians are frustrated by the lack of "actionable information generated by these systems".  The article discusses the need for the "seamless flow of electronic information" in a couple of places.  It describes how EHR could be useful in research.  It ends  on a vague note that there is still a lot of work to be done and maybe that will happen some day.

The second piece by Halamka and Tripathi (2) starts out on a more realistic note.  Top down implementation gave physicians inadequate tools and then blamed them for being reluctant.  Technically physicians were not reluctant because they did not have a choice.  In most systems, administrations made all of the purchasing decisions, overhyped the software, and let it be known that contrary opinions were never appreciated.  It was up to physicians to learn how to use the stuff no matter how time consuming it was.  They point out that some measures were enacted on top of the clinical workload that made the situation worse.  They include the longest sentence I have recently seen in a journal article but it does cite a fair number of the problems a lot of the problems:          

"Soon physicians were expected to provide high-quality and empathic care in a 12-minute visit while weaning themselves from paper-based workflows, entering the numerous structured data elements required for meaningful use, rolling out new HIPAA privacy notices, implementing security protections for new electronic data, learning and incorporating new ICD-10 billing codes, and convincing their patients to use patient portals and secure e-mail, all while avoiding safety and malpractice issues." (p 907).

At one point they make the argument that health care organization have moved to "value-based purchasing".  Was that applied to the EHR?  Is there anyone today who would suggest that any EHR that is currently sold in this country is a value based proposition or is there as a result of HITECH legislation?  In their conclusion they suggest that now all of these systems are installed - the government can afford to pull back simplify requirements and let market effects shape some of the metrics like interoperability.  They suggest that returning control to the customers is a path to "recapturing the hearts and minds of our clinicians."

The government heavy aspect of these editorial pieces cannot be denied.  It is more of the same "we are from the government and we are here to help you whether you want us to or not."  Here are a few aspects of this roll out that the HITECH legislation either missed or made a lot worse:

1.  Incredible cost - 

Enterprise wide systems are incredibly expensive both upfront and for the annual licensing and maintenance fees.  That does not include any modification of the system - that will typically cost more.  Once a health system has bought in - it is difficult to shop around and come up with a better deal.  In some areas one company has a monopoly on the enterprise.  In many cases the systems are marketed as being a lot more easy to use than they are.  Support is huge in the implementation phases and drops off in a hurry.  Subsequent modifications - even if they are easy to make cost large sums of money.  In some cases the vendors demonstrate whiz bang technology like seamless integration with voice recognition systems.  The customers often find out that those options don't work well with their systems or are available as a high priced option.

In many organizations the EHR budget (combined with other federal costs cutting measures) is a fixed drain on the budget.  If revenues fall, lay offs can occur just to keep the EHR running.  In private practices, the up front and monthly licensing fees are no less of a burden.  There are some "free" EHRs that are funded by advertising or research but no standard comparison or guidance for any clinic that needs to implement one.  The total budget of these costs would be interesting to see, but I have never been able to find a good reference.  Health systems typically describe their margins in the low single digits.  If that is true and EHR system costing tens of millions up front with tens of millions in maintenance costs is clearly a tremendous drain on the system.

2.  IT implementation is poor -

I don't know what percentage of physicians has seen their EHR rolled out in a way that does not optimize clinical utility.  Working physicians need the most rapid route to incorporate the EHR into their work flow.  That includes software that works, software that is efficient, and ideally software that is smart enough to allow individual physicians to analyze trends in the same patient or groups of patients that will allow better diagnosis and treatment.  The IT implementation is also frequently biased toward administration rather than clinicians.  Many clinicians are surprised to find that someone is counting their mouse clicks as a way to measure productivity and the EHR charts they access are monitored.  This is another significant cost that nobody ever seems to discuss. The most egregious implementation error is when a software change is made on the fly and the physicians are given a heads up with no training.  They are expected to learn the software change with no training.  I have always found the illusion of assistance with the EHR interesting.  For the first few months there are always superusers and the factory reps clamoring to help you out.  They gradually fade into the background and you are left with a very poor piece of software.          

3.  Software quality is poor - 

As far as I can tell current EHR programs are designed to deliver lab and imaging data, generate documentation and reports, and perform a billing and coding function.  They do a fair job with the labs and imaging details. Documentation is very labor intensive and poorly done.  It adds hours per day to the physician's work flow and has necessitated the hiring of scribes and retired physicians just to keep up with the documentation tasks.  It is common that EHRs cannot be accessed by outside physicians and when that happens - the printout sent to those physicians is poorly structured and extremely content poor.

On the authorship side - a basic goal should be to produce a document fairly quickly that appears to have been written by an intelligent being.  As anyone who has read EHR entries or reports that is not typically the case.  There are extremes at either end.  You can find notes that are basically a series of check boxes or you can find 18 page notes where the author imported everything that they could into the note because that is one of the few things (in some EHRs) that you can do quickly.  Neither approach is helpful in terms of continuity of care or developing rational treatment for a patient.  Having used EHRs for the past 15 years - I can attest to clunky editing and incompatibility with voice recognition systems as being major drawbacks.  The text fields of some EHRs only work with their own microscopic and very slow editing tools.  It is impossible to set a cursor anywhere in the field to produce the document.  Using this twenty times a day when you are used to working with functional word processors is maddening.  Some systems of care set a font that looks like it is out of the 1950s and that is how the final document appears.

Every physician was appointed (under penalty of law) to be their own billing and coding specialist.  Sure every hospital and clinic has some billing and coding specialists but today they are there basically to audit the work of physicians.  In the EHR this translates to a tedious search for the diagnoses, listing them in the right priority, and signing off on the diagnostic and billing codes.  This can take up to an additional 20 mouse clicks per encounter.  Even if you can do that in 2 minutes - times 4000 encounters per year - that equals another 133 hours per year. That is work added just to maintain the EHR.  Before the EHR, billing and coding could be completed in about 10% of the time.

All the time physicians are engaged in these inefficient EHR based practices they are hearing how the EHR is such an advance in efficiency and productivity.              

4.  Hardware infrastructure/software is running 24/7 - 

Before the modern EHR, there were a limited number of workstations per hospital and most of them were shut down at night.  Now there are thousands of workstations and storage arrays in large organizations running 24/7.  They can't be shut off because of frequent software updates.  Nursing and medical staff can easily be observed spending most of their workday at computers rather than talking with patients and families.  Before the current EHR, physician would typically look at a computer screen to review the labs and possible the MAR (record of meds given).  Now starting at a computer screen most of the time is the norm.  The EHR dominant approach has increased the electrical bill and reduced time spent with patients at the same time.     

5.  A question of security - 

There have been well publicized leaks of large numbers of patient files and more recent ransomware attacks.  Security in most software systems has historically been an afterthought.  I have not seen any specific problems with EHR software but this tip sheet from CMS points out the potential complexity of the situation.  The security problem is also more urgent for healthcare sites that are under more stringent privacy requirements like 42 CFR Part 2.    

Those are a few of my ideas about the rapid deployment of the EHR.  Unlike the authors I am very skeptical of any drastic improvements on the horizon.  If you can't make an EHR that will produce a coherent report with information content at least equal to an old admission or discharge note that is a major problem.  If you can't produce an EHR that allows for some intelligent analysis of data without going through the entire record and reading every text note that is a major problem.  Sure - access to labs is nice, but we had computer access to labs before the EHR.  Patient access is also nice, but let's be honest - it is limited and doesn't address what patients really want - quality health care.

About the only thing that I agree with the authors on is that the physician needs to be put back into the loop.  But that hides the very basic fact that physicians were intentionally taken out of the loop thirty years ago when politicians decided that they could be replaced by managed care administrators.

When you look at it from that perspective the massive problems with the current EHR - make perfect sense.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1:  Washington V, DeSalvo K, Mostashari F, Blumenthal D. The HITECH Era and the Path Forward. N Engl J Med. 2017 Sep 7;377(10):904-906. doi: 10.1056/NEJMp1703370. PubMed PMID: 28877013.

2:   Halamka JD, Tripathi M. The HITECH Era in Retrospect. N Engl J Med. 2017 Sep7;377(10):907-909. doi: 10.1056/NEJMp1709851. PubMed PMID: 28877012.

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