There was a time–not too long ago, in fact– when it seemed safe and reasonable to define health information technology narrowly: the acronym encompassed the management of health information and its secure exchange between patients, providers, and insurers.
For many providers, the definition seemed to compartmentalize HIT. It was for someone else, perhaps the Ivory Tower crowd, but not for me. The nearly 90% of practicing physicians in the US that don’t use an EHR for example, might have sensed that someday they’d have to log on, but not any time soon.
And as for all that stuff about telemedicine and consumer driven health care, that made good topics for CME courses, but again, it wasn’t immediately relevant.
That began to change 15 years ago when nascent quality reporting initiatives began forcing physicians to deal with clinical performance data and the systems used to collect, analyze and display it.
It accelerated when patients began showing up in their offices with Internet-derived reprints of journal articles they hadn’t read themselves, and with pay for performance systems in which insurers tied a chunk of their income to the frequency with which they screened people for colon cancer and kept their diabetics’ HbA1c levels below 7.0.
But nothing in the past could have prepared physicians to deal with the overwhelming flood of HIT that inundates them on a daily basis today, a flood that threatens to sweep away long-established professional codes of conduct and disrupt the very processes by which care is rendered, doctors communicate with patients, and health systems interact.
The Obama administration’s push to disseminate EHRs via Medicare bonus payments for those who demonstrate “meaningful use” beginning in 2011, is but a tiny component of the Deluge.
Equally if not more important is the recent explosion of social media, a phenomenon whose unprecedented, indiscriminate growth has spared no sector of our society and taken health care by storm.
The newest generation of physicians has grown up with Facebook and Google, with Twitter and YouTube. They “get” the technology, but don’t always understand how its use affects their efforts to forge identities as medical professionals.
And for the rest of us, forget it. What in the world is all this stuff, and how dare we use it without getting burned by the fire?
Consider the following examples, which illustrate how the deluge affects physicians at every stage of their careers:
1) In his second week as a medical intern, Dr. Jain receives a “friend request” from an Erica Baxter on Facebook. Years ago, while he was a medical student, Jain helped deliver Baxter’s baby. Now she wants to reconnect. Is she simply a grateful patient interested in sharing news about her child, or does she have other motives? Jain clicks “confirm,” granting Ms. Baxter access to his network of friends, his personal photographs and blog, and the scrawls of others left on his wall.
2) Dr. Margolis, a middle-aged pulmonologist, receives about 120 emails per day. The assortment spans the range of her busy life. There’s an email from her oldest child who needs to be picked up at 6:30, not 5:30. Her dentist has an opening this afternoon and wants her to come in for a permanent fitting on her crown. Her secretary wants her to see a patient whose breathing difficulties have taken a turn for the worse.
And then there are emails from Dr. Margolis’ patients. Some are annoying, some can be handled by the nurse practitioner, and some reflect downright emergencies.
Problem is, Dr. Margolis is way too busy to read 120 emails per day. She’s lucky if she gets through half of them. She has a thousand unread emails in her inbox, many of which arrived weeks ago. She worries some may contain time-sensitive information regarding a patient.
3) Dr. Tapscott, in his late 60s and nearing the end of a satisfying career in family practice, is convinced by front-office personnel to begin using an electronic health record. “That $44,000 in bonus payments sure would help make ends meet,” he reasoned to himself at the time.
But the EHR implementation doesn’t go well. He has trouble getting the hang of the thing and believes the machine puts a barrier between himself and his patients. He expresses displeasure to his staff, one of whom leaves in a huff. Five months and tens of thousands of dollars later, he ditches the system.
Physicians have faced emerging ethical challenges before. Their struggle to develop professional identities is as old as the profession itself. And this isn’t the first time they’ve have had to incorporate new medical innovations into their daily lives, but the HIT deluge multiplies these challenges several fold, and creates myriad new ones, many of which remain vexing even to deep thinkers in the field.
Something has to be done to support physicians as they confront the HIT Deluge.
Thankfully, that’s possible and within our abilities to do so, at least for the most part. In subsequent posts of this series, we’ll explore the Deluge in detail and draw conclusions about what we need to do.
Glenn Laffel is a physician with a PhD in Health Policy from MIT and serves as Practice Fusion’s Senior VP, Clinical Affairs.