Unless Used Correctly, Electronic Health Records Are a Placebo

Carl Weinschenk

E-health is a hot topic. Anything having to do with health care is, of course. In addition to having a huge profile because of the recently ended health care reform debate, both the broadband stimulus and the National Broadband Plan identify it as a prime area of focus for broadband. It seems like a bit of a no-brainer: Bringing cutting-edge electronics to the hospital, the doctor's office and the pharmacy, the thinking goes, will simultaneously cut costs, improve treatment and enhance safety.


Not so fast.


InformationWeek explores a study conducted by Harvard researchers that was published in the journal Health Affairs. The bottom line of the research is that e-health and its electronic health records (EHR) component can be helpful-but only if people learn to use it correctly. Put another way, simply implementing e-health infrastructure is not enough to realize the promised benefits. It must be used in the right manner.


The study presented input from 3,049 American hospitals. The story has some interesting bullet points from the results. The basic theme is that EHR doesn't automatically lead to healthier patients. For instance, the study found:

There was no significant relationship between EHR adoption and quality process measures for acute myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure, or pneumonia.


The report found no relationship between the level of EHR adoption and overall risk-adjusted length of stay.

Elsewhere in the study, however, it becomes clear that the point isn't that EHR is ineffective, which may seem to be the conclusion if the bullet points are considered in isolation. EHR will help-but only if used correctly. The conclusion is mentioned in the dry prose of an academic study or, in this case, from the abstract:

Our findings suggest that to drive substantial gains in quality and efficiency, simply adopting electronic health records is likely to be insufficient. Instead, policies are needed that encourage the use of electronic health records in ways that will lead to improvements in care.

In other words, all the technology won't do much good unless the humans using it know what they are doing.


Academic worrywarts not withstanding, e-health is hot. This week, Medco Health Solutions and Medical Mutual of Ohio have partnered on an e-prescription program, which runs from last month until September, and will aid doctors using PCs and wireless devices to write and send prescriptions to pharmacies. Mistakes in prescriptions harm and kill many patients annually.


The takeaway is that the organizations must focus on training of doctors, nurses and other personnel in how to use the gear. That may seem like an easy task, but doctors are a persnickety bunch, and many are very comfortable with their illegible handwriting and other antiquated procedures. For these reasons, executives planning an e-health deployment should make sure that the professional staff is on board.

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