EHR Report: How Zika virus reveals the fault in our EHRs



It is always noteworthy when the headlines in the medical and mainstream media appear to be the same.

Typically, this means one of two things: 1) Sensationalism has propelled a minor issue into the common lexicon; or 2) a truly serious issue has grown to the point where the whole world is finally taking notice.

Dr. Chris Notte and Dr. Neil S. Skolnik

Dr. Chris Notte and Dr. Neil S. Skolnik

With the recent resurgence of Zika virus, something that initially seemed to be the former has unmistakably developed into the latter, and health care providers are again facing an age-old question: How do we adequately fight an evolving and serious illness in the midst of an ever-changing battlefield?

As has been the case countless times before, the answer to this question really lies in early identification. One might think that the advent of modern technology would make this a much easier proposition, but that has not exactly been the case.

In fact, recent Ebola and Zika outbreaks have actually served to demonstrate a big problem in many modern electronic health records: poor clinical decision support.

In this column, we felt it would be helpful to highlight this shortcoming, and make the suggestion that in the world of EHRs …

Change needs to be faster than Zika

Zika virus is not new (it was first identified in the Zika Forest of Uganda in 1947), and neither is the concept of serious mosquito-born illness. While the current Zika hot zones are South America, Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean, case reports indicate the virus is quickly migrating. At the time of this writing, more than 150 travel-associated cases of Zika have been identified in the continental United States, and it is clear that the consequences of undiagnosed Zika in pregnancy can be devastating.

Furthermore, Zika is just the latest of many viruses to threaten the health and welfare of modern civilization (for example, Ebola, swine flu, SARS, and so on), so screening and prevention is far from a novel idea.

Unfortunately, electronic record vendors don’t seem to have gotten the message that the ability to adapt quickly to public health threats should be a core element of any modern EHR.

On the contrary, EHRs seem to be designed for fixed “best practice” workflows, and updates are often slow in coming (typically requiring a major upgrade or “patch”). This renders them fairly unable to react nimbly to change.

This fact became evident to us as we attempted to implement a reminder for staff members to perform a Zika-focused travel history on all patients. We felt it was critical for this reminder to be prominent, be easy to interact with, and appear at the most appropriate time for screening.

Despite multiple attempts, we discovered that our top-ranked, industry-leading EHR was unable to do this seemingly straightforward task, and eventually we reverted to the age-old practice of hanging signs in all of the exam rooms. These encouraged patients to inform their doctor “of worrisome symptoms or recent travel history to affected areas.”

We refuse to accept the inability of any modern electronic health record to create simple and flexible clinical support rules and improve on the efficacy of the paper sign. This, especially in light of the fact that one of the core requirements of the Meaningful Use (MU) program – for which all EHRs are certified – is clinical decision support!

Unfortunately, the MU guidelines are not specific, so most vendors choose to include a standard set of rules and don’t allow the ability for customization. That just isn’t good enough. If Ebola and Zika have taught the health information technology community one thing, it’s that …

It is time for smarter EHRs!

For many people, the notion of artificial intelligence seems to be science fiction, but they don’t realize they are carrying incredible “AI” devices with them everywhere they go. We are, of course, referring to our cell phones, which seem to be getting more intelligent all the time.

If you own an iPhone, you may have noticed it often seems to know where you are about to drive and how long it will take you to get there. This can be a bit creepy at first, until you realize how helpful – and smart – it actually is.

Essentially, our devices are constantly collecting data, reading the patterns of our lives, and learning ways to enhance them. Smartphones have revolutionized how we communicate, work, and play. Why, then, can’t our electronic health record software do the same?

It will surprise exactly none of our readers that the Meaningful Use program has fallen short of its goal of promoting the true benefits of electronic records. Many critics have suggested that the incentive program has faltered because EHRs have made physicians work harder, without helping them work smarter.


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