Free EMR Newsletter Want to receive the latest news on EMR, Meaningful Use, ARRA and Healthcare IT sent straight to your email? Join thousands of healthcare pros who subscribe to EMR and HIPAA for FREE!!

Medicine is Still ‘In Denial’ Over Clinical Decision Support

Posted on May 19, 2011 I Written By

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Last month, in my very first post for EMR and HIPAA, I mentioned Dr. Larry Weed in my commentary about the general public’s perception of clinical decision support. I referred to a 2007 study in the journal Medical Decision Making, which said, “Patients may surmise that a physician who uses a [decision support system] is not as capable as a physician who makes the diagnosis with no assistance from a DSS.” I then noted that Weed has been saying for more than 50 years that physicians shouldn’t have to rely on their memory to make clinical decisions when computers can help them process an increasingly voluminous knowledge base.

As it turns out, Weed read my commentary. (I’m guessing that a computer, i.e., Google Alerts, led him to the post. See, computers really can help find the information we’re looking for. Who knew?) And, as it also turns out, Weed and his son, Lincoln, a Washington, D.C.-area attorney who now consults on health privacy issues, just had their latest book, “Medicine in Denial,” published. They both contacted me last week to share this news.

“A culture of denial subverts the health care system from its foundation. The foundation—the basis for deciding what care each patient individually needs—is connecting patient data to medical knowledge. That foundation, and the processes of care resting upon it, are built by the fallible minds of physicians. A new, secure foundation requires two elements external to the mind: electronic information tools and standards of care for managing clinical information,” reads the book’s opening paragraph.

Yep, that sounds like clinical decision support to me.

“Deep disorder pervades medical practice. Disguised in euphemisms like ‘clinical judgment’ and ‘evidence-based medicine,’ disorder exists because medical practice lacks a true system of care. The missing system has two core elements: standards of care for managing clinical information, and electronic information tools designed to implement those standards. Electronic information tools are now widely discussed, but the necessary standards of care are still widely ignored,” reads the book’s description.

The Weeds believe current EHR systems don’t measure up, and they said so in comments submitted in response to the December 2010 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) report on health IT, which recommended against standardizing EHR formats. “Sound standards for the structure of medical records provide essential standards of care for managing clinical information.  Medical practice needs these standards no less than the domain of commerce needs accounting standards for managing financial information.  Failure of recognize this principle is a root cause of health care’s failures of quality and economy,”  the Weeds said in their comments.

It’s a principle that Larry Weed, 88, has been advocating since he developed the problem-oriented medical record in the 1950s. In 1991, the Institute of Medicine report, “The Computer-Based Patient Record:  An Essential Technology for Health Care,” (revised 1997) said that the problem-oriented medical record “reflects an orderly process of problem solving, a heuristic that aids in identifying, managing and resolving patients’ problems.”

And 20 years later, medicine hasn’t changed much. Perhaps, though, it takes longer than that. Lincoln Weed also referenced a story I wrote for InformationWeek on May 10. I noted that the Consumer Partnership for eHealth’s Consumer Platform for Health IT referred to consumers as “”the most significant untapped resource” in healthcare.

Well, wouldn’t you know, Larry Weed has written the following: “patients are the largest untapped resource in medical care today.” That was from his book, “Medical Records, Medical Education, and Patient Care”. That book was published in 1969.

Instead of ending this post on a down note, let me just add that I would have had an interview with Dr. Weed this week, but he just left the country for a speaking engagement. He’s 88 and still traversing the globe, fighting for what he believes in. Don’t we all wish we had that kind of passion?

More Unrealistic Expectations From the Public, This Time Involving CDS

Posted on April 21, 2011 I Written By

Yet again, someone needs to educate the general public about healthcare in general and health IT in particular.

HealthLeaders last week asked the question, “Does Decision Support Make Docs Look Dumb?” The story, apparently based on a 2007 study (not 2008, as HealthLeaders reported) in the journal Medical Decision Making, says: “Most clinicians would agree that evidence-based decision support tools have the potential to improve clinical quality. But patients’ perception of the tools—and the physicians who use them—might be yet another barrier to their adoption. The problem is twofold: Some patients are skeptical of docs who need a computer to help them make a diagnosis. And some physicians don’t want to be seen as being too reliant on technology.”

We’ve long known that physicians have resisted clinical decision support, for a variety of reasons. They trust their professional judgment. When they only have a few minutes with each patient, they believe it simply takes too long to look up information that might help reach a more accurate diagnosis or devise a better care plan. The technology simply isn’t up to snuff. Or there isn’t enough electronic data available on each patient for CDS to have a positive effect.

But to read the conclusion of that Medical Decision Making study is to see an entirely different excuse for shunning clinical decision support: “Patients may surmise that a physician who uses a [decision support system] is not as capable as a physician who makes the diagnosis with no assistance from a DSS.”

HealthLeaders interviews other clinicians and researchers who have found similar sentiments. “Patients object when they ask their doctor a question and then she or he immediately types in the question into their laptop and then reads back the answer. It gives patients the feeling that they just paid a $25 copay to have someone Google something for them,” Illinois State University information systems professor James Wolf tells the publication.

“Physicians are reluctant to adopt computer-based diagnostic decision aids, in part due to the fear of losing the respect of patients and colleagues,” Wolf adds.

If this is true, it represents failures on many levels. IT systems designers haven’t made their technology easy to use. Physicians and healthcare entities haven’t done a good job educating patients and journalists like myself have truly failed the public by continuing to feed them false expectations about healthcare.

First off, Wolf’s statement that patients feel like they wasted only a $25 copay perpetuates the myth that a physician office visit only costs $25. If patients think they may have wasted $25, how do you think insurance companies and employers must feel that another $150 of their money went out the window?

The part about losing respect is perhaps more troubling. Physicians need to put their fragile egos away and do whatever they need to do to provide better care. The status quo just isn’t cutting it.

I’ve had the distinct honor of interviewing Dr. Larry Weed on several occasions. Weed, the octogenarian inventor of the problem-oriented medical record and the SOAP note, has been calling for CDS and other IT for more than half a century. Yes, more than half a century. He’s been actively working on such technology since the early 1970s. In a 2009 interview with the Permanente Journal, Weed said:

Computer technology maximized access to voluminous data and knowledge, thereby exposing the limited information processing capacity of the human mind. Scientists cope with this limitation by controlling the research environment, defining the variables involved, and limiting the scope of their investigations. Practicing physicians do not have that luxury. The time constraints of practice and the enormous scope of information implicated by multiple problems in unique patients make it impossible for the human mind to function with scientific rigor. Physicians inevitably resort to dangerous cognitive shortcuts.

I realized that medicine must transition from an era where knowledge and information processing capacity resides inside a physician’s head to a new day where information technology would provide knowledge and the processing capacity to apply it to detailed patient data. The physicians’ unaided minds are incapable of recalling all the necessary knowledge from the literature and processing it with data from the unique patient. An epidemic of errors and waste is occurring as we persist in trying to do the impossible. Changing this requires that we recognize the crucial distinction between electronic access to information and electronic processing of information. This requires a rational standard of data organization in medical records. Yet, these points are still not recognized in most current discussions of health information technology.

As a result, I have been involved for the last 60 years in trying to design and develop a medical care system in which patients are no longer dependent on the limited, personal knowledge their caregivers happen to possess. The medical care system must resemble the transportation system, where consumers use knowledge captured in maps, road signs, computerized navigation devices, and the like at the time of need. Patients, like travelers, will be expected from childhood on to develop the necessary skills to navigate the system.

At all times, patients should be supported by caregivers who are highly trained in the necessary hands-on skills, like removing the appendix or listening to heart sounds, just as in the travel system there are pilots, mechanics, air-traffic controllers, and others who perform functions that travelers cannot perform.

Yet, few outside of academic medicine have ever heard of Weed and his pioneering work. Instead, we rely on shoddy reporting and sound bites designed to score political points to shape our opinions. Why do you think the debate around “healthcare reform” focused so much on insurance coverage rather than actual care? And why do you think patients still believe office visits and prescriptions really cost just $10 or $20 or $30? And why do so many people still expect their physicians to know everything?

We must do better.