EHR and Malpractice Lawsuits

Long time reader Carl recently pointed me to this excellent AHIMA article on EHR and Malpractice Lawsuits. It’s first section sums up the current state of EHR and lawsuits quite well:

Medical records are a vital part of any healthcare lawsuit because they document what happened during treatment. Paper medical records are relatively simple aspects of litigation. HIM staff pull the requested chart, track down additional information as necessary, and sometimes provide a deposition on the record’s accuracy.

The process is far more complex with an EHR. The record of a patient’s care that a clinician views on screen may not exist in that form anywhere else. When the information is taken out of the system and submitted into legal proceedings, the court has a very different view—one that often confuses the proceedings and, in the worst instances, raises suspicions about the record’s validity.

The challenges stem from the design of the systems, which were built for care—not court. If the provider struggles in providing documentation, a trial involving malpractice can easily shift its focus from an examination of care to a fault-finding mission with the recordkeeping system. At other times, the provider’s inability to put forward the information in a comprehensible format may raise suspicions that it is missing, withholding, or obscuring information.

I’d probably modify the sentence that says that EHR’s were “built for care-not court” to say that EHR’s were “built for billing-not court”, but the idea is still the same. The big issues for EHR in lawsuits is that there’s no really good precedent for how an EHR will be treated in court. We’re so early in the process of legal cases that use EHR documentation, that we just don’t know how the courts are going to deal with EHR documentation.

Plus, when you consider that there are 300+ EHR companies out there, I’m not sure that a legal case with one EHR software is going to be applied the same way to the other EHR software. Each EHR displays data differently. Each EHR audits users differently. Each EHR stores data differently. So, I expect that each EHR will be looked at in a different way.

The AHIMA article linked above is a good read for those interested in this topic and points out a lot of other issues that could face an HIM staff that’s dealing with a case involving documentation in an EHR. Although, one of the overriding messages is that HIM staff and healthcare organizations are going to need an expert of their EHR involved in the process. In fact, I can see many HIM departments getting trained up on EHR in order to fulfill this need.

What I also see coming is a new group of EHR expert witnesses. Again, I think that these expert witnesses will have to have specific knowledge of a particular EHR to be really effective. I’m sure they’ll come from the ranks of EHR consultants, former EHR employees, and some EHR users. Considering the millions of dollars on the line in these malpractice cases, these EHR expert witnesses stand to make a lot of money.

I don’t want to make it all sound doom and gloom. I expect that there will be many cases involving EHR where a doctor or institution is covered better by an EHR than they were in the paper world. This will be even more true as EHR vendors continue to shore up their EHR audit logs and processes. There’s new legal risks with EHR, but there are also old risks that are removed by using an EHR. We just need to make sure we’re ready for the new risks.