By one measure, certainly, the effort has achieved what it set out to do: Today, 96 percent of hospitals have adopted EHRs, up from just 9 percent 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.”
A bridge to nowhere
As Biden would tell you, the original concept was a smart one. The wave of digitization had swept up virtually every industry, bringing both disruption and, in most cases, greater efficiency. And perhaps none of these industries was more deserving of digital liberation than medicine, where life-measuring and potentially lifesaving data was locked away in paper crypts — stack upon stack of file folders at doctors’ offices across the country.
Stowed in steel cabinets, the records were next to useless. Nobody — particularly at the dawn of the age of the iPhone — thought it was a good idea to leave them that way. The problem, say critics, was in the way that policymakers set about to transform them.
“Every single idea was well-meaning and potentially of societal benefit, but the combined burden of all of them hitting clinicians simultaneously made office practice basically impossible,” said John Halamka, chief information officer at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who served on the EHR standards committees under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “In America, we have 11 minutes to see a patient, and, you know, you’re going to be empathetic, make eye contact, enter about 100 pieces of data, and never commit malpractice. It’s not possible!”
KHN and Fortune examined more than two dozen medical negligence cases that have alleged that EHRs either contributed to injuries, had been improperly altered, or were withheld from patients to conceal substandard care. In such cases, the suits typically settle prior to trial with strict confidentiality pledges, so it’s often not possible to determine the merits of the allegations. EHR vendors also frequently have contract stipulations, known as “hold harmless clauses,” that protect them from liability if hospitals are later sued for medical errors — even if they relate to an issue with the technology.
But lawsuits, like that filed by Fabian Ronisky, which do emerge from this veil, are quite telling.
Ronisky, according to his complaint, arrived by ambulance at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica on the afternoon of March 2, 2015. For two days, the young lawyer had been suffering from severe headaches while a disorienting fever left him struggling to tell the 911 operator his address.
Suspecting meningitis, a doctor at the hospital performed a spinal tap, and the next day an infectious disease specialist typed in an order for a critical lab test — a check of the spinal fluid for viruses, including herpes simplex — into the hospital’s EHR.