Feature

Death by a thousand clicks


 

The virtual magic bullet

Electronic health records were supposed to do a lot: make medicine safer, bring higher-quality care, empower patients, and yes, even save money. Boosters heralded an age when researchers could harness the big data within to reveal the most effective treatments for disease and sharply reduce medical errors. Patients, in turn, would have truly portable health records, being able to share their medical histories in a flash with doctors and hospitals anywhere in the country – essential when life-and-death decisions are being made in the ER.

But 10 years after President Barack Obama signed a law to accelerate the digitization of medical records – with the federal government, so far, sinking $36 billion into the effort – America has little to show for its investment. KHN and Fortune spoke with more than 100 physicians, patients, IT experts and administrators, health policy leaders, attorneys, top government officials and representatives at more than a half-dozen EHR vendors, including the CEOs of two of the companies. The interviews reveal a tragic missed opportunity: Rather than an electronic ecosystem of information, the nation’s thousands of EHRs largely remain a sprawling, disconnected patchwork. Moreover, the effort has handcuffed health providers to technology they mostly can’t stand and has enriched and empowered the $13-billion-a-year industry that sells it.

By one measure, certainly, the effort has achieved what it set out to do: Today, 96% of hospitals have adopted EHRs, up from just 9% in 2008. But on most other counts, the newly installed technology has fallen well short. Physicians complain about clumsy, unintuitive systems and the number of hours spent clicking, typing and trying to navigate them – which is more than the hours they spend with patients. Unlike, say, with the global network of ATMs, the proprietary EHR systems made by more than 700 vendors routinely don’t talk to one another, meaning that doctors still resort to transferring medical data via fax and CD-ROM. ­Patients, meanwhile, still struggle to access their own records – and, sometimes, just plain can’t.

Instead of reducing costs, many say, EHRs, which were originally optimized for billing rather than for patient care, have instead made it easier to engage in “upcoding” or bill inflation (though some say the systems also make such fraud easier to catch).

More gravely still, a months-long joint investigation by KHN and Fortune has found that instead of streamlining medicine, the government’s EHR initiative has created a host of largely unacknowledged patient safety risks. Our investigation found that alarming reports of patient deaths, serious injuries and near misses – thousands of them – tied to software glitches, user errors or other flaws have piled up, largely unseen, in various government-funded and private repositories.

Compounding the problem are entrenched secrecy policies that continue to keep software failures out of public view. EHR vendors often impose contractual “gag clauses” that discourage buyers from speaking out about safety issues and disastrous software installations – though some customers have taken to the courts to air their grievances. Plaintiffs, moreover, say hospitals often fight to withhold records from injured patients or their families. Indeed, two doctors who spoke candidly about the problems they faced with EHRs later asked that their names not be used, adding that they were forbidden by their health care organizations to talk. Says Assistant U.S. Attorney Foster, the EHR vendors “are protected by a shield of silence.”

Though the software has reduced some types of clinical mistakes common in the era of handwritten notes, Raj Ratwani, a researcher at MedStar Health in Washington, D.C., has documented new patterns of medical errors tied to EHRs that he believes are both perilous and preventable. “The fact that we’re not able to broadcast that nationally and solve these issues immediately, and that another patient somewhere else may be harmed by the very same issue – that just can’t happen,” he said.

David Blumenthal, who, as Obama’s national coordinator for health information technology, was one of the architects of the EHR initiative, acknowledged to KHN and Fortune that electronic health records “have not fulfilled their potential. I think few would argue they have.”

The former president has likewise singled out the effort as one of his most disappointing, bemoaning in a January 2017 interview with Vox “the fact that there are still just mountains of paperwork ... and the doctors still have to input stuff, and the nurses are spending all their time on all this administrative work. We put a big slug of money into trying to encourage everyone to digitalize, to catch up with the rest of the world ... that’s been harder than we expected.”

Seema Verma, the current chief of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which oversees the EHR effort today, shudders at the billions of dollars spent building software that doesn’t share data – an electronic bridge to nowhere. “Providers developed their own systems that may or may not even have worked well for them,” she told KHN and Fortune in an interview last month, “but we didn’t think about how all these systems connect with one another. That was the real missing piece.”

Perhaps none of the initiative’s former boosters is quite as frustrated as former Vice President Joe Biden. At a 2017 meeting with health care leaders in Washington, he railed against the infuriating challenge of getting his son Beau’s medical records from one hospital to another. “I was stunned when my son for a year was battling stage 4 glioblastoma,” said Biden. “I couldn’t get his records. I’m the vice president of the United States of America. ... It was an absolute nightmare. It was ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous, that we’re in that circumstance.”

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