NY Times/Steve Lohr asks "Why the Economic Payoff From Technology Is So Elusive." The answer in medicine is obvious.

In a June 5, 2016 article, New York Times reporter Steve Lohr (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/l/steve_lohr/index.html), who reports on technology, business and economics, asked the following question:

Why the Economic Payoff From Technology Is So Elusive
New York Times, Business Day
JUNE 5, 2016

Your smartphone allows you to get almost instantaneous answers to the most obscure questions. It also allows you to waste hours scrolling through Facebook or looking for the latest deals on Amazon.  More powerful computing systems can predict the weather better than any meteorologist or beat human champions in complex board games like chess.

But for several years, economists have asked why all that technical wizardry seems to be having so little impact on the economy. The issue surfaced again recently, when the government reported disappointingly slow growth and continuing stagnation in productivity. The rate of productivity growth from 2011 to 2015 was the slowest since the five-year period ending in 1982.

Healthcare becomes the gravamen of the article:

One place to look at this disconnect is in the doctor’s office. Dr. Peter Sutherland, a family physician in Tennessee, made the shift to computerized patient records from paper in the last few years. There are benefits to using electronic health records, Dr. Sutherland says, but grappling with the software and new reporting requirements has slowed him down. He sees fewer patients, and his income has slipped.

Unfortunately, the advisors who helped him with the article may have provided incomplete information:

... “The government funding has made a huge difference,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. “But we’re seeing little evidence so far that all this technology has had much effect on quality and costs.”

In the face of, among many others, a stunning letter from 40 medical societies to HHS in 2015 that the technology is unfit for purpose (http://mb.cision.com/Public/373/9710840/9053557230dbb768.pdf), known and hair-raising defects (http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2011/01/maude-and-hit-risk-mother-mary-what-in.html), and many other complaints from physicians and nurses (e.g., http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2013/11/another-survey-on-ehrs-affinity-medical.html, http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2013/07/rns-say-sutters-new-electronic-system.html, query link http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/search/label/glitch as just a few examples), such a statement is anserine.

Why would anyone expect (good) effects on "quality and costs" of healthcare when the technology is so unfit for purpose in design and implementation that it has alienated most of its users?  

I've written previously about Jha's views in a May 27,  2009 post "Harvard's EMR Justification: We Just Have To Do Something" (http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2009/05/harvards-emr-justification-we-just-have_27.html):

 ... "I'm not suggesting EHR is going to be a panacea, but the one thing that is absolutely true is there is nothing else out there now that has any more political appeal," Jha says. "Everybody agrees, whether you are a conservative, moderate, or liberal, that we have to do something about healthcare. So the one place where we can all come to agreement is we have to do something about electronic records."

I do not think "political appeal" is a good justification for a multi-billion dollar cybernetic experiment in medicine, where the risks of the technology are considerable and where basic healthcare needs are not being well met among the poor and underprivileged.

Former ONC Chair David Brailer is quoted:

“People confuse information automation with creating the kind of work environment where productivity and creativity can flourish,” said Dr. David J. Brailer, who was the national health technology coordinator in the George W. Bush administration. “And so little has gone into changing work so far.”

Brailer was little better than Jha, and moves the goalposts with a type of circular logic.  He appears to be saying that technology that will revolutionize medicine can't work until we change how things are done in medicine so the technology can revolutionize medicine. 

The article then quotes one Tennessee physician, a Dr. Sutherland, who is "happy" to accept bad health IT, a resultant pay cut, and increased work:

... Today, Dr. Sutherland’s personal income and the medical group’s revenue are about 8 percent below where they were four years ago. But in 2015, both his earnings and the revenue of Healthstar, which employs 350 people in 10 clinics, increased slightly, by nearly 3 percent from 2014.

... Dr. Sutherland bemoans the countless data fields he must fill in to comply with government-mandated reporting rules, and he concedes that some of his colleagues hate using digital records. Yet Dr. Sutherland is no hater. Despite the extra work the new technology has created and even though it has not yet had the expected financial payoff, he thinks it has helped him provide better information to patients.

He values being able to tap the screen to look up potentially harmful drug interactions and to teach patients during visits. He can, for example, quickly create charts to show diabetes patients how they are progressing with treatment plans, managing blood glucose levels and weight loss.

He is working harder, Dr. Sutherland says, but he believes he is a better doctor. Blunt measures of productivity, he added, aren’t everything. “My patients are better served,” he said. “And I’m happier.”

While being able to provide fancy charts and check drug-drug interactions (for which a massive and expensive EHR is certainly not needed; a PDA will suffice) is fine.

However, anyone who gladly accepts a pay cut, and inconvenience, and harder work due to bad health IT, and is a happy camper with that state of affairs, either suffers from the Stockholm syndrome or has a lot of discretionary income and free time to spare that many clinicians do not.  

The article fails to mention the hundreds of thousands of other US docs and others in other lands (e.g., http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2016/05/hit-mayhem-canadian-style-nanaimo.html) who aren't happy at all with health IT as it is today.  


I sent this email to Mr. Lohr.

From: S Silverstein
To:Steve Lohr 
Date: Tue, Jun 7, 2016 at 10:02 AM
Subject: Re: Why the Economic Payoff From Technology Is So Elusive

Dear Mr. Lohr,

In medicine, the answer to this question is straightforward.  I don't know if Ashish Jha brought this to your attention, or if he himself is aware of it.

This letter from nearly 40 different medical societies to HHS about bad health IT is specific about how bad the current health IT is:

You should be aware of the letter's contents.  I've also attached it to this email.

In academic Medical Informatics, such matters are often ignored, as they run contrary to the narrative that IT will "revolutionize medicine"; I know, as I was Yale faculty in Medical Informatics myself. 

The assumption in academic circles and in the Administration (unfortunately) is that "all health IT is good health IT." 

Unfortunately, it is not.  From my own site "Contemporary Issues in Medical Informatics: Good Health IT, Bad Health IT, and Common Examples of Healthcare IT Difficulties" at http://cci.drexel.edu/faculty/ssilverstein/cases/ :

Definitions authored by myself and Australian informatics expert Dr. Jon Patrick:

Good Health IT ("GHIT") is defined as IT that provides a good user experience, enhances cognitive function, puts essential information as effortlessly as possible into the physician’s hands, can be easily, substantively and cost-effectively customized to the needs of medical specialists and subspecialists, keeps eHealth information secure, protects patient privacy and facilitates better practice of medicine and better outcomes. 

Bad Health IT ("BHIT") is defined as IT that is ill-suited to purpose, hard to use, unreliable, loses data or provides incorrect data, is difficult and/or prohibitively expensive to customize to the needs of different medical specialists and subspecialists, causes cognitive overload, slows rather than facilitates users, lacks appropriate alerts, creates the need for hypervigilance (i.e., towards avoiding IT-related mishaps) that increases stress, is lacking in security, is lacking in evidentiary soundness, compromises patient privacy or otherwise demonstrates suboptimal design and/or implementation. 

It comes as no surprise not to find productivity gains, but instead hundreds of thousands of angry physicians (and nurses), when health IT is mostly bad IT.

The health IT industry itself needs serious remediation before its products will be a boon to medicine.

Scot Silverstein, MD
Drexel University, Philadelphia

p.s. I have not even broached the matter of health IT patient harms. 

Patients are being harmed and dying of bad health IT.  See for instance the CRICO insurance report at http://www.cci.drexel.edu/faculty/ssilverstein/PSQH_MalpractClaimsAnalyConfirRisksEHR.pdf

I will add an addendum if I receive a reply.

-- SS