How Electronic Health Records Became An Absolute Fiasco

How Electronic Health Records Became An Absolute Fiasco

Thanks to federal mandates, physicians now spend more time staring at computer screens than connecting with patients. They find the drudgery soul-crushing.
Christopher Jacobs
By

Recent surveys of doctors show a sharp rise in frustrated physicians. One study last year analyzed a nearly 10 percentage point increase in burnout from 2011 to 2014, and laid much of the blame for the increase on a single culprit: Electronic health records. Physicians now spend more time staring at computer screens than connecting with patients, and find the drudgery soul-crushing.

What prompted the rise in screen fatigue and physician burnout? Why, government, of course. A recent Fortune magazine expose, titled “Death by 1,000 Clicks,” analyzed the history behind federal involvement in electronic records. The article reveals how electronic health records not only have not met their promise, but have led to numerous unintended and harmful consequences for American’s physicians, and the whole health care market.

Electronic Bridge to Nowhere

The Fortune story details all the ways health information technology doesn’t work:

  • Error-prone and glitch-laden systems;
  • Impromptu work-arounds created by individual physicians and hospitals make it tough to compare systems to each other;
  • An inability for one hospital’s system to interact with another’s—let alone deliver data and records directly to patients; and
  • A morass of information, presented in a non-user-friendly format, that users cannot easily access—potentially increasing errors.

The data behind the EHR debacle illustrate the problem vividly. Physicians spend nearly six hours per day on EHRs, compared to just over five hours of direct time with patients. A study concluding that emergency room physicians average 4,000 mouse clicks per shift, a number that virtually guarantees doctors will make data errors. Thousands of documented medication errors caused by EHRs, and at least one hundred deaths (likely more) from “alert fatigue” caused by electronic systems’ constant warnings.

Other anecdotes prove almost absurdly hysterical. The EHR that presents emergency room physicians 86 separate options to order Tylenol. The parody Twitter account that plays an EHR come to life: “I once saw a doctor make eye contact with a patient. This horror must stop.” The EHR system that warns physicians ordering painkillers for female patients about the dangers of prescribing ibuprofen to women while pregnant—even if the patient is 80 years old.

What caused all this chaos in the American health care market? One doctor explained his theory: “I have an iPhone and a computer and they work the way they’re supposed to work, and then we’re given these incredibly cumbersome and error-prone tools. This is something the government mandated” (emphasis added). Therein lies the problem.

Obama’s ‘Stimulus’ Spending Spree

In June 2011, when talking about infrastructure projects included in the 2009 “stimulus” legislation, President Obama famously admitted that “shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected.” Electronic health records, another concept included in the “stimulus,” ran into a very similar problem. Farzad Mostashari, who worked on health IT for the Obama administration from 2009-11, admitted to Fortune that creating a useful national records system was “utterly infeasible to get to in a short time frame.”

At the time, however, the Obama administration billeted electronic health records as the “magic bullet” that would practically eliminate medical errors, while also reducing health costs. Every government agency had its own “wish list” of things to include in EHR systems. Mostashari admitted this dynamic led to the typical bureaucratic problem of trying to do too much, too fast: “We had all the right ideas that were discussed and hashed out by the committee, but they were all of the right ideas” (emphasis original).

Meanwhile, records vendors saw dollar signs, and leapt at the business opportunity. As Fortune notes, many systems weren’t ready for prime time, but vendors didn’t focus on solving those types of inconsequential details:

[The] vendor community, then a scrappy $2 billion industry, griped at the litany of requirements but stood to gain so much from the government’s $36 billion injection that it jumped in line. As Rusty Frantz, CEO of EHR vendor NextGen Healthcare, put it: ‘The industry was like, ‘I’ve got this check dangling in front of me, and I have to check these boxes to get there, and so I’m going to do that.’’

The end result: Hospitals and doctors spent billions of dollars—because the government paid them to do so, and threatened to reduce their Medicare and Medicaid payments if they didn’t—to buy records systems that didn’t work well. These providers then became stuck with the systems once they purchased them, because of the systems’ cost, and because providers could not easily switch from one system to another.

David Blumenthal, who served as national coordinator for health IT under Obama, summed up the debacle accurately when he admitted that electronic health records “have not fulfilled their potential. I think few would argue they have.”

Electronic health records therefore provide an illustrative cautionary tale in which a government-imposed scheme spends billions of dollars but fails to live up to its hype, and alienates physicians and providers in the process. When the same thing happens under Democrats’ next proposed big-government health scheme—whether single payer, or some “moderate compromise” that only takes away half of Americans’ existing health coverage—don’t say you weren’t warned.

Mr. Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, and author of the forthcoming book, "The Case Against Single Payer." He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.
Photo U.S. Air Force photo by Steve Pivnick

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