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Doctor Survey Can’t Muster Enthusiasm for Electronic Health Records

Posted on September 14, 2016 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space. Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

Medscape’s annual report on electronic health records (EHRs) is out for 2016. With more than 15,000 physicians over 25 specialties responding, there’s little to celebrate in it. The survey confirms what we know about the Meaningful Use program–it succeeded in getting doctors to use EHRs (slide 2) and to convert their paper charts to EHRs (slide 30). What the Meaningful Use program failed at, apparently, is meaningful use of EHRs.

When doctors were asked about the effects of the EHR on their practice, most reported “no change” (page 18). Yes, they say it has helped them with “documentation”–but how is that an achievement? Maybe you can get your thoughts into the record, but that’s of no value if it doesn’t improve patient service or clinical operations. In fact, the EHR has negative value. The survey confirms what we’ve heard anecdotally for years: the EHR is widely reported to slow down workflow (slide 25) and to dramatically degrade almost every aspect of the doctor-patient interaction: face-to-face time, management of treatment plans, etc. (slide 19). The text in slide 19 pallidly argues that, well, the results aren’t as bad as they were in 2014. Certainly, users will learn over time to compensate for bad systems, but that doesn’t turn them into good systems. If they were good systems, doctor satisfaction would have gone up since 2012–instead, it’s plummeting (slide 22). I have to admit that I don’t quite understand what the term “satisfaction” means in this context (as opposed, say, to the Rolling Stones song). I take the specific observations of slides 18 and 19 more seriously.

We can probably count as a success that 30 percent of patients review their data (slide 20). As a proxy for patient engagement, this doesn’t go far (and it happens during the visit, not online), but I bet hardly anyone used to review their data.

E-prescribing remains the most “helpful” aspect of an EHR (slide 17). This probably reflects the dominance of a single service, SureScripts, in that area. With little to worry about in terms of interconnection, the industry can exchange data relatively easily. Other areas of health care continue to struggle and falter when it comes to basic data exchange–for instance, only 35 percent of doctors found EHRs helpful to provide clinical summaries of visits to patients. When we can’t even get to square one on patient engagement, we have a lot left to demand of EHRs.

There’s a huge gap between hospitals and independent practices in their choice of EHRs. This suggests that the major EHR vendors are aimed at lucrative markets–the kind of enormous practices that run in buildings that tower above their urban landscapes. Epic, of course, is far and away the most popular hospital system (page 6). The market for independent practices looks like the Republican presidential polls early in the primaries–totally fragmented (slide 7). eClinicalWorks takes top spot with 12 percent of the market, and all the other services, many of them well-known, trail with single-digit shares of the market.

Strangely, when independent practices were asked to rate their EHRs (slide 11), the order was quite different. It may be that small samples and close margins make the differences between slide 7 and 11 insignificant.

The nice aspect of this finding (satisfying, one might say) is that independent practices really are independent. Doctors apparently do their research and choose what’s best for them. Large systems, by contrast, force their associated outpatient clinics to use the same system the hospital uses, regardless of its suitability or usability.

Ratings show what users truly think of EHRs. On a scale from 1 to 5, you might think that at least one or two might wander into the 4-to-5 range, but none receives that honor. The Veterans Administrations’ VistA interface (see our recent article on it) comes out on top of the pack (slides 8, 9 10, and 12), which is no surprise because it has been rated highest by doctors for decades. This popularity doesn’t help VistA in the fight for institutional dollars. A widely popular, open source, totally customizable, low-cost solution is no match against aggressive salespeople from vendors that cost a cool billion to install.

But to be fair, several major vendors come very close to VistA in popularity, and I don’t know what the margin of error is (for the survey as a whole, it’s +/-0.8 percent). Epic may well make just as many people happy as VistA. Furthermore, VistA’s rating fell a tiny bit over the past two years (slide 9) and it doesn’t show up at all among independent practices (slides 7 and 11). Vendors are also shuffled around a bit when doctors rate them for particular features, such as ease of use, vendor support, or connectivity. (Connectivity is an odd thing to rate, because it takes two to tango. If doctors rate a vendor well just for exchanging records with other providers using the same vendor, the whole point is lost).

There’s little age difference in doctors’ comfort using EHRs (slide 23). The reported revolt by older physicians doesn’t seem to be real. However, it may be that a truly transformative use of EHRs, with data and clinical decision support intensely integrated into the practice, would appeal more to newer members of the field. Perhaps slide 23 reveals that EHRs aren’t having much effect.

With all the dissatisfaction, 81 percent plan to keep their current EHRs. Perhaps that’s a resigned acceptance of how bad the field is; no alternatives exist. By the way, only 32 percent of the doctors have attested for Stage 2 of Meaningful Use (slide 29). How they’ll meet the requirements of the new MACRA law is beyond me. And unless real EHR competition picks up (in an industry that already has too many vendors), I don’t expect a radical improvement in vendor ratings in the 2017 survey.

Study: Health IT Costs $32K Per Doctor Each Year

Posted on September 9, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

A new study by the Medical Group Management Association has concluded that that physician-owned multispecialty practices spent roughly $32,500 on health IT last year for each full-time doctor. This number has climbed dramatically over the past seven years, the group’s research finds.

To conduct the study, the MGMA surveyed more than 3,100 physician practices across the U.S. The expense number they generated includes equipment, staff, maintenance and other related costs, according to a press release issued by the group.

The cost of supporting physicians with IT services has climbed, in part, due to rising IT staffing expenses, which shot up 47% between 2009 and 2015. The current cost per physician for health IT support went up 40% during the same interval. The biggest jump in HIT costs for supporting physicians took place between 2010 and 2011, the period during which the HITECH Act was implemented.

Practices are also seeing lower levels of financial incentives to adopt EHRs as Meaningful Use is phased out. While changes under MACRA/MIPS could benefit practices, they aren’t likely to reward physicians directly for investments in health IT.

As MGMA sees it, this is bad news, particularly given that practices still have to keep investing in such infrastructure: “We remain concerned that far too much of a practice’s IT investment is tied directly to complying with the ever-increasing number of federal requirements, rather than to providing patient care,” the group said in a prepared statement. “Unless we see significant changes in the final rule, practice IT costs will continue to rise without a corresponding improvement in the care delivery process.”

But the MGMA’s own analysis offers at least a glimmer of hope that these investments weren’t in vain. For example, while it argues that growing investments in technologies haven’t resulted in greater administrative efficiencies (or better care) for practices, it also notes that more than 50% of responders to a recent MGMA Stat poll reported that their patients could request or make appointments via their practice’s patient portal.

While there doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast evidence that portals improve patient care across the board, studies have emerged to suggest that portals support better outcomes, in areas such as medication adherence. (A Kaiser Permanente study from a couple of years ago, comparing statin adherence for those who chose online refills as their only method of getting the med with those who didn’t, found that those getting refills online saw nonadherence drop 6%.)

Just as importantly – in my view at least – I frequently hear accounts of individual practices which saw the volume of incoming calls drop dramatically. While that may not correlate directly to better patient care, it can’t hurt when patients are engaged enough to manage the petty details of their care on their own. Also, if the volume of phone requests for administrative support falls enough, a practice may be able to cut back on clerical staff and put the money towards say, a nurse case manager for coordination.

I’m not suggesting that every health IT investment practices have made will turn to fulfill its promise. EHRs, in particular, are difficult to look at as a whole and classify as a success across the board. I am, however, arguing that the MGMA has more reason for optimism than its leaders would publicly admit.

Most Popular Healthcare IT Articles of 2015

Posted on December 31, 2015 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

As we come to the end of 2015, I thought I’d take a minute and look back at our top 16 most read Healthcare IT articles in 2015.

6 Healthcare Incubators Growing the Future of HealthTech – Great article. No doubt there are more great healthcare incubators starting all the time. Looks like maybe we should go back and do an update.

Healthcare IT and EHR Conferences and Events – If you’re looking for healthcare IT related conferences and events, this page is a great resource. Along with showing our schedule of conferences and events, we also highlight some of the most popular healthcare IT conferences.

Crazy and Funny ICD-10 Codes – People love a good laugh. Amazing that this post in 2011 was still making people laugh in 2015. It would be interesting to see how many times these funny codes have been used since ICD-10 started on Oct 1, 2015.

Benefits of EMR or EHR Over Paper Charts – I love when people just complain about their EHR software. It’s amazing how quick we forget the benefits of EHR and start to take them for granted.

The 2015 #HIT99 Results Are In – I love this list of people. If you’re looking for an amazing group of healthcare IT people to follow, start with this list.

2014 EHR Mandate – I’m really glad that so many years later this post is still getting traffic. I’m still annoyed by people that say that EHR was mandated. This post outlines why it’s not mandated, but why you should consider EHR anyway (Note: Government money isn’t one of the main reasons)

Mark Cuban’s Suggestion to Do Regular Blood Tests – I was amazed at the brouhaha that Mark’s comments created. This post was my take on it. I side with Mark, but most people I read did not. This topic is going to become more and more important as more tests and sensors enter the market.

Best Scanners for High Volume Scanning in a Doctor’s Office – I need to update this post with the latest version of the various scanners out there. I’ll have to reach out to Fujistu, Ambir, and Canon to get updates on the latest scanners.

HIPAA Security and Compliance Thoughts from the Healthcare Cyber Security Summit – This is a great guest post by Anna Drachenberg. I always love when smart people take time to share their insights on this blog.

Practice Fusion Violates Some Physicians’ Trust in Sending Millions of Emails to Their Patients – This is still the article that took me the longest to write. In fact, it probably took me 10 times as long as any other article I’ve written. I’m glad that people are still reading it. It’s a story that every EHR vendor should learn about so they can avoid the same thing happening to them.

Digital Signatures in EMR – Signatures are still the biggest source of blame for paper in health care. Well, that doesn’t count printing from EHR software. I’m glad that we now have a number of great digital signature options. Much has changed since this post back in 2007.

EMR Companies Holding Practice Data for “Ransom” – I wish I could say that this isn’t a problem anymore. Unfortunately, I’m sure we’re going to see even more of it as organizations choose to switch EHR.

HIPAA Compliance and Windows Server 2003 – I wonder how many healthcare organizations still have Windows Server 2003 in production. I’m guessing far too much.

Examples of HIPAA Privacy Violations – More HIPAA Lawsuits Coming? In 2006 we knew that more HIPAA violations were coming, but I don’t think then we even dreamed of the size of the breaches that would occur. I think more HIPAA Lawsuits are still coming.

Firewall & Windows XP HIPAA Penalties – Same story with Windows XP as Windows Server 2003. You’re a brave soul to still run Windows XP in a healthcare organization.

The Next Major Healthcare Product – Care Management System – I still reference this article a lot when talking with people about trends in healthcare IT. I got my first PR pitch about a Care Management System. We’ll see if the term catches on. Regardless of whether the term catches on or not, the concept of a patient centered care management system is the next stage of what we need to provide care to patients.

Not a bad list. Looks like a few of the posts need updating. Something to look forward to in 2016. Happy New Year!

Going Beyond EHR Data Collection to EHR Data Use with Dr. Dan Riskin

Posted on April 28, 2014 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

We had a chance to sit down and do a Google Plus hangout with Dan Riskin, MD, CEO and co-founder of Health Fidelity to discuss the challenges of EHR today and how we can reach the real benefits of EHR adoption. We had a great discussion about how the industry is so caught up just getting the data in the EHR software that we’re missing out on the opportunity to get the benefits of actually using the EHR data.

For some reason the Google hangout audio and video didn’t sink right (welcome to the cutting edge of technology), but the audio is good. Just start up the video below and enjoy listening to it like a podcast or radio show. I expect that’s what most of you do anyway with our videos.

I hope you’ll enjoy my interview with Dr. Riskin.

The Good News About Patient Portals …

Posted on January 14, 2014 I Written By

James Ritchie is a freelance writer with a focus on health care. His experience includes eight years as a staff writer with the Cincinnati Business Courier, part of the American City Business Journals network. Twitter @HCwriterJames.

I recently wrote that it’s not clear whether patient portals do much to improve health care.

Now a new study suggests they help in at least one area: medication adherence.

The research involved diabetic patients who were using cholesterol-lowering statin drugs and had registered for online portal access. Among those who started using the system’s online refill function as their only method of getting the medication, “nonadherence” dropped 6 percent.

LDL or “bad” cholesterol also decreased.

The researchers concluded that “wider adoption of online refills may improve adherence.” No decline in nonadherence was seen in patients who didn’t use the online refill function.

The Kaiser Permanente study was published in the journal Medical Care.

The study included plenty of subjects — 8,705 people who used online refills and 9,055 who didn’t. But if there’s a cause-effect relationship at work in this study, you have to wonder in which direction it might run. Might the people who tend to take their medicine as prescribed be more likely to sign up for online refills in the first place?

Still, the study is an intriguing hint that patient portals might be worth at least some of the attention they’re getting. Nonadherence to medication regimens is a huge issue for health care because of both the human toll it takes and the inefficiency it fosters in the system.

Typical nonadherence rates are in the 30-60 percent range, depending on the condition, the medication and other factors, according to Medscape. It’s especially easy to slack off when symptoms disappear.

The study builds on another piece of good news for health IT. Researchers recently found that EMRs can make diabetes care better by rendering care coordination more efficient, as Katherine Rourke wrote here at EMR and HIPAA.

Portals are, of course, experiencing tremendous popularity because they help health care providers to meet Meaningful Use Stage 2 patient-engagement requirements. But, as I wrote earlier, in a review of 46 studies related to portals, researchers didn’t find evidence for much in the way of patient benefits.

Physicians have a major job ahead of them if they’re to make full use of patient portals and receive the available federal incentives. Perhaps this study, modest as its results are, suggests that their efforts will have some benefit for the patients they serve.

 

ROI for EMR: Does It Even Make Sense Now?

Posted on December 20, 2013 I Written By

James Ritchie is a freelance writer with a focus on health care. His experience includes eight years as a staff writer with the Cincinnati Business Courier, part of the American City Business Journals network. Twitter @HCwriterJames.

There’s a new data point to add to the debate over EMR return on investment.

Norton Healthcare Inc. in Louisville, Ky., has experienced a $12 million increase in federal reimbursement since it started using Epic, Louisville Business First reported. The health system, which operates five hospitals and a network of outpatient sites, is three years into a five-year, $200 million implementation.

Sounds like the beginning of some pretty good ROI. Or does it?

It’s hard to say.

ROI for records systems is notoriously hard to pin down. The word is that many hospitals don’t even try. And they might be onto something.

A revenue boost is a good sign. It’s often a result of improved coding and lower claims denial rates, as Colin Konschak of health care consulting firm Divurgent and Garrett Blair of Norfolk, Va.-based health system Sentara Healthcare recently wrote. And of course, there are the federal incentives for using an EMR — for hospitals, as much as $11 million over four years.

There’s also the rise in productivity that EMRs are expected to cause. At first, an EMR can slow down clinicians’ workflow and cost them and their organization money. But in time, the system could increase productivity.

But revenue is only part of the equation. Cost savings are the more important — and harder to calculate — factor.

Here are a few ways, as described by Konschak and Blair, that EMRs can help hospitals to save:

  • Less need for transcription.

  • Reduced use of staff time for copying and filing.

  • Reduced — often by 50-70 percent — use of preprinted forms.

  • Potentially lower malpractice premiums because of more complete documentation.

Many other potential benefits are probably real but are even less straightforward to measure. Features such as clinical decision support and electronic medical administration records, for example, could lead to reductions in medical errors — the types of mistakes the federal government no longer pays for. But measuring the money you saved from the errors you didn’t make is fairly abstract.

Many hospitals do little if anything to measure the return on their EMR investment, according to a study released by Beacon Partners last year. Healthcare Scene’s John Lynn wrote a few months ago that CIOs likely view the systems as a “necessary requirement of being a hospital today,” somewhat like cleaning supplies. So they don’t see the need to measure ROI.

To me, the “investment” part of ROI suggests that you have a choice. You put money into something now with the hope — but no guarantee — of a payoff later.

Building an imaging center on the edge of town or buying a surgical robot would probably be considered investments. Maintaining your buildings or upgrading your phones would not.

Doing something the government is making you do is not an investment. Given the reimbursement penalties that will eventually kick in for organizations that stick with paper, it’s hard to imagine that many hospital executives see EMR adoption as a matter choice.

The idea of ROI for EMR is probably outdated, a holdover from the days when having a system was optional. Hospital leaders are shopping for EMRs with an eye toward getting the best value for their money — just the way they shop for cleaning supplies, furniture or legal services.

You could say that as a society we’ve invested in the idea of EMRs and that we’re hoping for a payoff in terms of better outcomes and lower costs. But that doesn’t predict much about whether any particular hospital or doctor will see a dollar-and-cents ROI.

At Norton in Louisville, it sounds like they’re happy just to be recovering some of what they’re spending.

“It really does improve the continuity of care,” Norton’s chief medical officer, Dr. Steve Heilman, told Business First.

For now, it sounds like Norton is on track.

(Note: I work for Business First as a freelancer but didn’t write the story linked here.)

EMR Can Improve Diabetes Care

Posted on December 16, 2013 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

EMRs can help improve diabetes care by making care coordination of such patients more efficient, according to a study reported in iHealthBeat.

The federally-funded study, which was done by the Western New York Beacon Community, went to one of 17 Beacon Communities funded by ONCHIT, which has handed out $250.3 million in total grants.

In this case, the Beacon Community is a partnership between HealtheLink, Catholic Medical Partners and P2 Collaborative of Western New York. The partnership’s $16.1 million is the largest grant received by any of the 17 Beacon Communities.

To study the impact of EMRs on diabetes care, the partners looked at about 40,000 patients, and 344 primary care physicians working in 98 practices.

To implement the study, participants created diabetes registries that tracked lab tests and results, created personalized reminders and guidance for patients, and generated quarterly reports for physicians underscoring areas where they could cut costs and improve diabetic care, iHealthBeat said.

But the diabetic registry was just the beginning. The Beacon project also implemented preventive telemonitoring to avoid excess emergency department visits and hospital readmissions; medication therapy tools to alert doctors — in real time — of changes ED doctors make medication regiments, and patient portals giving patients access to prescription refills, appointment requests and lab results.

At the end of the study, researchers polled the 57 practices that consistently used the registries, and found that the number of diabetics with uncontrolled sugars levels fell 4 percent, with some practices seeing as much as a 10 percent improvement. Researchers calculated that if project guidelines were followed by 20 percent of patients with diabetes and their doctors in Western New York, savings could be $18 million.

This result echoes results of other studies. For example, last year researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College concluded that when a group of community-based doctors moved to EMRs , they provided better care, particularly in managing chlamydia, diabetes, colorectal cancer and breast cancer.

It’s Not The Health IT You Choose, But The Way You Talk About It

Posted on December 13, 2013 I Written By

James Ritchie is a freelance writer with a focus on health care. His experience includes eight years as a staff writer with the Cincinnati Business Courier, part of the American City Business Journals network. Twitter @HCwriterJames.

With system upgrades taking shape across the country, IT is no longer just another another department in the hospital. More than ever, it’s integral to how healthcare organizations work and get paid.

But you don’t always see this shifting landscape reflected in hospitals’ leadership structures or practices.

That’s unfortunate. Getting the most out of  the billions being spent on health IT will require clear vision and skillful communication at the top levels, according to a December article in the Journal of the American Health Information Management Association.

Doctors, nurses and other team members “must understand the nature of the changes—what the result of the changes will be, how their roles and work will be different, and why change is important,” author Tiankai Wang wrote.

Thoughtful language can go a long way toward minimizing staff resistance and making an implementation successful, explained Wang, a professor of health information management at Texas State University.

Leaders should practice “framing” by promoting the benefits of the technology, such as improved outcomes, lower costs and greater efficiency, Wang wrote. They should also use “rhetorical crafting” by using stories, analogies and other devices to make their message resonate.

Rhetorical crafting, according to Wang, “leverages a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach to frame leaders’ message in a form that will connect more easily with staff and help them to embrace the possibilities of the coming change.”

He also advises using words such as “we” and “should” rather than “you” and “must” when talking about IT changes.

At a more fundamental level, though, IT leadership isn’t always valued in healthcare to the extent that other roles are. In 2013, average total cash compensation for chief information officers was eighth-highest of all hospital titles at about $316,000, Modern Healthcare reported.

And despite the growing importance of health IT, it’s also uncommon for hospital CIOs to be promoted to the roles of chief operating officer, president or CEO.

It does happen, though, as David Raths wrote in Healthcare Informatics. In perhaps the best known example, Cincinnati-based Mercy Health, which operates several hospitals, earlier this year named Yousuf Ahmad, who had previously served as CIO, to the chief executive role. Ahmad had also held other management roles, including president of the system’s physician group.

It’s likely a sign of the front-and-center role that IT is now taking at healthcare organizations everywhere.

EHR Helps Researchers Find Genetic Connections To Disease

Posted on December 5, 2013 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

A group of researchers have completed a study which found new links between patients’ genetic profile and specific diseases by mining EMR data, reports a story in iHealthBeat.

The research, which was conducted by the Electronic Medical Records and Genomics Network, a consortium of medical research institutions including the Mayo Clinic and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, analyzed data from about 13,000 of EMRs.

The participants then grouped about 15,000 billing codes contained in the EMRs into 1,600 disease categories. Next, they looked for links to diseases in EMRs which contained DNA data.

The researchers, whose study was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, found  63 new genetic links to diseases, ranging from skin cancer to anemia, iHealthBeat said.

The EMR study method, which is known as a phenome-wide association study, is a departure from the 13-year old genome-wide association model, which has been used to search for common mutations in the DNA of patients of people with the same diseases.

Co-author Joshua Denny, a biomedical informatics researcher at Vanderbilt, says that the newer method can help link seemingly unrelated symptoms, detect potentially harmful side effects of a drug, and help find new uses for drugs.

This is just the tip of the iceberg where translation medicine and EMRs are concerned. Using EMRs to conduct genomic research is becoming an increasingly popular exercise, cutting across a wide range of clinical disciplines.

And it’s not just institutional academic research houses getting into the act. For example, this summer a large northern Virginia hospital announced that it had struck a deal with a Massachusetts analytics firm to see if data mined from EMRs can better predict the risk of preterm live birth.

Now, genomics research is not for just any hospital — it’s obviously a major undertaking — but I think it’s likely more hospitals will get into the game. By this time next year I think there will be a crop of interesting new genomics projects mining EMRs. Although, it will be interesting to see how the 23andMe FDA battle impacts this as well.

Is Your EMR Compromising Patient Privacy?

Posted on November 20, 2013 I Written By

James Ritchie is a freelance writer with a focus on health care. His experience includes eight years as a staff writer with the Cincinnati Business Courier, part of the American City Business Journals network. Twitter @HCwriterJames.

Two prominent physicians this week pointed out a basic but, in the era of information as a commodity, sometimes overlooked truth about EMRs: They increase the number of people with access to your medical data thousands of times over.

Dr. Mary Jane Minkin said in a Wall Street Journal video panel on EMR and privacy that she dropped out of the Yale Medical Group and Medicare because she didn’t want her patients’ information to be part of an EMR.

She gave an example of why: Minkin, a gynecologist, once treated a patient for decreased libido. When the patient later visited a dermatologist in the Yale system, that sensitive bit of history appeared on a summary printout.

“She was outraged,” she told Journal reporter Melinda Beck. “She felt horrible that this dermatologist would know about her problem. She called us enraged for 10 or 15 minutes.”

Dr. Deborah Peel, an Austin psychiatrist and founder of the nonprofit group Patient Privacy Rights, said she’s concerned about the number of employees, vendors and others who can see patient records. Peel is a well-known privacy advocate but has been accused by some health IT leaders of scaremongering.

“What patients should be worried about is that they don’t have any control over the information,” she said. “It’s very different from the paper age where you knew where your records were. They were finite records and one person could look at them at a time.”

She added: “The kind of change in the number of people who can see and use your records is almost uncountable.”

Peel said the lack of privacy causes people to delay or avoid treatment for conditions such as cancer, depression and sexually transmitted infections.

But Dr. James Salwitz, a medical oncologist in New Jersey, said on the panel that the benefits of EMR, including greater coordination of care and reduced likelihood of medical errors, outweigh any risks.

The privacy debate doesn’t have clear answers. Paper records are, of course, not immune to being lost, stolen or mishandled.

In the case of Minkin’s patient, protests aside, it’s reasonable for each physician involved in her care to have access to the complete record. While she might not think certain parts of her history are relevant to particular doctors, spotting non-obvious connections is an astute clinician’s job. At any rate, even without an EMR, the same information might just as easily have landed with the dermatologist via fax.

That said, privacy advocates have legitimate concerns. Since it’s doubtful that healthcare will go back to paper, the best approach is to improve EMR technology and the procedures that go with it.

Plenty of work is underway.

For example, at the University of Texas at Arlington, researchers are leading a National Science Foundation project to keep healthcare data secure while ensuring that the anonymous records can be used for secondary analysis. They hope to produce groundbreaking algorithms and tools for identifying privacy leaks.

“It’s a fine line we’re walking,” Heng Huang, an associate professor at UT’s Arlington Computer Science & Engineering Department, said in a press release this month “We’re trying to preserve and protect sensitive data, but at the same time we’re trying to allow pertinent information to be read.”

When it comes to balancing technology with patient privacy, healthcare professionals will be walking a fine line for some time to come.