Contemporary Issues in Medical Informatics: Good Health IT, Bad Health IT, and Common Examples of Healthcare IT Difficulties
Professors at Harvard and Nottingham Medical School (UK): Are we repeating the UK's clinical IT failures in the US

Professors at Harvard and Nottingham Medical School (UK): Are we repeating the UK's clinical IT failures in the US?

In the opinion piece "Don't Repeat the UK's Electronic Health Records Failure" (Huffington Post, Dec. 5, 2010), Dr. Stephen B. Soumerai, Professor of Population Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Dr. Anthony Avery, Professor of Primary Care at the University of Nottingham Medical School, UK share familiar themes on health IT.

These themes will be especially familiar to Medical Informatics specialists, and readers of my Medical Informatics teaching website and weblog posts.

The professors wrote:

Fueled by the economic stimulus passed by Congress in 2008 [The ARRA a.k.a. "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act" and the HITECH legislation it contained - ed.], the federal government has embarked on a controversial $30 billion program to induce doctors throughout the country to adopt electronic health records (EHRs) by 2014. The purpose is to create an interconnected system of electronic health records to improve safety and reduce medical costs.

But the United Kingdom has spent the last 6 years working on the same idea, and it's proven to be a colossal failure -- so much so that the government is drastically cutting its program. What happened to their plan? Should we be paying attention before rushing ahead with our own?

My response to that question is clear, such as at my Nov. 2008 post "Should The U.S. Call A Moratorium On Ambitious National Electronic Health Records Plans?" and the followup Jan. 2009 post "I Ask Again: Should The U.S. Call A Moratorium On Ambitious National Electronic Health Records Plans?" where I wrote:


$50 billion a year is big money that might be better spent elsewhere - such as providing care for the poor and for disadvantaged children - until we know how to get HIT right.

I suggest it may be best not to go all-out for HIT under the current paradigm. It is my belief, in fact, based on the above issues [UK and US issues - ed.] plus a chronic influx of HIT difficulty and mismanagement stories I hear from colleagues, ex-colleagues, recruiters, etc., that healthcare organizations not contractually obligated should consider a postponement of plans to purchase clinical IT (i.e., systems for direct use by clinicians such as EHR's).

This postponement should last at least until the issues that lead to ineffective and counterproductive HIT can be better understood and corrections initiated in the industry.


The professors further write:

In 2005 the United Kingdom embarked on the largest investment ($18 billion) in health information technology in the world. Yet despite expectations that the system would increase efficiency and reduce medical errors, their efforts neither improved health nor saved money -- in fact in some cases, they may have led to patient harm.

Britain's government-run medical system is obviously different from our complex public-private insurance system. [I had written that a smaller, socialized healthcare system should be far easier to automate than our own in the US - ed.] However, its electronic health record project bears an uncanny resemblance to the program President Obama is starting.


They then delineated a number of problems:

Too large and ambitious: The UK project tried to accomplish too much, too fast, attempting to digitize health records for the whole population in a period of four years. This massive undertaking is years behind schedule and has delivered only a fraction of what it promised. Despite all the money poured into the system, the vast majority of hospitals in the UK still don't have integrated electronic health records.


Why? The reasons sound familiar:


... Because non-clinicians developed the system, the electronic forms they designed have little to do with how doctors treat patients -- making it unworkable for many physicians. As the Chair of the British House of Commons Public Accounts Committee recently stated, "This is the biggest IT [Information Technology] project in the world and it is turning into the biggest disaster."


The "biggest IT disaster in the world" is not an honor I wish to see repeated in the U.S.

On another familiar problem:

Too dependent on commercial, proprietary companies: Rather than create one system and beta-test it, the UK government depended on four companies to build the system, two of which quit or were fired for missing deadlines. So the health records were never developed in the south of England. The computer software was secret and proprietary. There was no accountability to the public, and the vendors did not provide enough technical support to clinicians having trouble using the records.

The resulting software errors and crashes caused missing or incorrect clinical information and sometimes threatened patient safety, for example by causing surgical delays and the cancellation of hundreds of operations.


The inquiring mind should want to know about actual patient injuries and deaths that likely resulted from such problems...

The professors observe:

If a country like Britain -- which already has a national health system and is a fraction of the size of the US -- had so many problems with electronic health records, imagine the problems America would face.


This sounds like my comments in a public comment letter of March 9, 2010 to HHS/ONC (Re: RIN 0991-AB59, "Proposed Establishment of Certification Programs for Health Information Technology") where I wrote, among many other things:

... We ignore the UK experience at our peril, an experience in a medical environment smaller and far more government-controlled than our own.

... I believe that a rushed National Program for HIT in the United States will suffer the same fate as the aforementioned National Programme for IT in the UK, and perhaps even a worse fate as the UK’s socialized medicine system is certainly a smaller, more homogeneous and more controllable testbed environment for experimenting with HIT.


The professors relate:

Even our partial adaption of electronic health records is causing problems. Over the last couple of years, doctors and hospitals have reported to the FDA dozens of medical injuries -- including six deaths and preventable heart attacks -- caused by problems related to computerized health records such as software errors and unreadable computer screens. Some errors resulted in drug doses that were 10 times higher than intended. FDA officials called this the "tip of the iceberg."

I wrote about the FDA's findings here, and conducted a "thought experiment" regarding what those numbers might extrapolate out to in my April 2010 post "If The Benefits Of Healthcare IT Can Be Guesstimated, So Can And Should The Dangers."

They continue:

... More than 50 medical organizations, including the AMA, have called on the Secretary of Health and Human Services to delay the program. In response, the administration delayed some of the required health IT functions, but kept the same 2014 deadline.


Indeed. They are courting disaster in my opinion, both clinically and financially, as I wrote in a Feb. 2009 Wall Street Journal letter to the editor entitled “Digitizing Medical Records May Help, but It's Complex”:

Dear WSJ,

You observe that the true political goal is socialized medicine facilitated by health care information technology. You note that the public is being deceived, as the rules behind this takeover were stealthily inserted in the stimulus bill.

I have a different view on who is deceiving whom. In fact, it is the government that has been deceived by the HIT industry and its pundits. Stated directly, the administration is deluded about the true difficulty of making large-scale health IT work. The beneficiaries will largely be the IT industry and IT management consultants.

For £12.7 billion the U.K., which already has socialized medicine, still does not have a working national HIT system, but instead has a major IT quagmire, some of it caused by U.S. HIT vendors.

HIT (with a few exceptions) is largely a disaster. I'm far more concerned about a mega-expensive IT misadventure than an IT-empowered takeover of medicine.

The stimulus bill, to its credit, recognizes the need for research on improving HIT. However this is a tool to facilitate clinical care, not a cybernetic miracle to revolutionize medicine. The government has bought the IT magic bullet exuberance hook, line and sinker.

I can only hope patients get something worthwhile for the $20 billion.


The professors then note:

How do we avoid the UK's failure? The administration or Congress should slow down the program and delete those parts of the legislation that fine doctors for not using this technology. There's no need to have this system in place by 2014. Instead, we should conduct rigorous studies of the cost-effectiveness of electronic health records systems before mandating their use. Rather than force doctors to choose from dozens of commercial software products developed in secret, we should take a hint from the non-commercial sector, such as the Veterans Administration, which uses "open-source" coding so people can work collaboratively to continuously improve the system.


Slowing down the program and performing rigorous studies of HIT before wide scale rollout are themes I raised, among other places, in my Dec. 2009 post "Tensions and Paradoxes in Electronic Patient Record Research: Critical Thinking on Health IT" where I wrote:

In conclusion, I believe this literature review supports the notion expressed in other studies and opinion pieces here and elsewhere that we really need to SLOW DOWN the current HIT stampede, largely promoted by the HIT industry lobby. We need to take the appropriate time to better understand how to "do HIT well" before plunging in as if we actually know what we're doing


as well as at my Oct. 2009 post "Washington Post Article: Electronic medical records not seen as a cure-all" where I wrote:

... The literature is indeed conflicting, and the need for rigorous scientific study has never been more essential considering the commitment of tens of billions of dollars towards health IT. The time for story telling, marketing based on opinion, name calling, leap-of-faith extrapolations of light year dimensions, and other forms of pseudoscience and non-science are over. The time for objective study is now.


The professors conclude:


The Obama administration wants government programs to be based on evidence of effectiveness. Simply following the lead of "IT believers" and salesmen without the requisite evidence will repeat the UK's failures. Now is the time to proceed carefully, consider existing research and the British experience, and chart a more rational course into the digital age of medicine.


I do not know if these two professors were familiar with my writings, but I am happy to see these themes (once treated as verboten and as grounds for marginalization by the HIT industry) increasingly going mainstream.

Patient well being depends on that.

 

Addendum:  the professors indicate they were not aware of my writings, and arrived at their conclusions independently.