The Day the Electronic Medical Record Tried to Kill Me

Picture 1There’s a big discussion going on in the health tech community about a controversial keynote speech given by Vinod Khosla at the Health Innovation Summit (HIS), in which he stated that 80% of what doctors do could be replaced by machines.

If you’re a doc like me who has no idea who the heck Vinod Khosla is (he’s a venture capitalist and co-founder of Sun Microsystems), why he’d be a keynote speaker at a healthcare event and what the heck HIS is, well, that’s the point of this post. You see, there are a whole lot of folks like Khosla out there – investors, entrepreneurs, tech types – who are attempting to redefine healthcare according to their own personal vision. Where we see a healthcare system in crisis, they see opportunity – just another problem with a technological solution. Computer-driven algorithms are the answer to mis-diagnosis and medical error, IPhone apps can replace physician visits, video connectivity can increase access.

Where we see illness and distress, they see a market.

And what business folks like to call disruption in the marketplace. Think about what happened to downtown small town USA after the first shopping mall opened. Or what happened to movie houses when Netflix started offering DVD rentals online. Or where all the independent bookstores went when the first Borders opened up, and what happened to Borders when the Kindle hit the market.

Out with the old, in with the new.

If Khosla is right, the we docs in our offices and hospitals are the old downtown department stores, the bookstores and the bricks and mortar businesses in an online revolution. We’re replaceable. At least most of us.

Is Khosla right?


The therapeutic relationship between a doctor and a patient can never be replicated by an IPhone app. Not when so many of my patients leave my office on a daily basis telling me how much better they feel just having spoken to me. It’s a powerful and sacred relationship that is irreplaceable.

These days, however, almost all of my patients have googled their symptoms, and many have done a over the counter diagnostic test or treatment before coming in to see me. I’ll never see the ones who got their questions answered online or their symptoms cured by that over the counter med – I see what’s left after self-diagnosis and self-treatment has failed, or google told them to see me.

That’s disruption, isn’t it?

One day very soon, women will be able to screen themselves for cervical cancer and std’s using a self-administered vaginal swab. No need to see me unless the test is abnormal, or there are symptoms.


Of course, computer driven diagnostic algorithms, apps and programs can create a whole new set of problems in over-diagnosis, since “there’s nothing seriously wrong with you” is rarely an output. In my office, that’s a very frequent clinical assessment. Functional ovarian pain. The occasional errant menstrual cycle or missed period. Anxiety. Stress. Depression. Lack of sleep. Over-eating, over-drinking, over-medicating. What computer is going to pick that up?

Not to mention trauma care, surgery, childbirth, respiratory distress and any one of thousands of health emergencies that you can’t treat with an IPad. I don’t see any of that work going away for docs anytime soon, do you? Some of it, of course, is being shared with trained non-physicians, and even robots. But docs are still an indispensable part of the healthcare mix.

So while the mix is changing, we docs are still in it. And I don’t see that changing. At least for here and for now. But the future?

I don’t know.

Docs need to be part of the digital revolution

I do know that if this is the new revolution in healthcare, we docs better get in on it.

Take the EMR as an example of what happens when docs let non-docs innovate in healthcare without significant physician input. We become typists, not physicians. Clerical work that used to be done by lower paid staff – entering lab and radiology orders – becomes ours to do. We spend the majority of a patient visit looking at a computer screen and not the patient. Retrieving relevant clinical information is like searching for a needle in the haystack of required fields of entry, most of which are not necessary to provide care.

Indeed, we have not yet shown definitively that EMR’s improve outcomes.

And yet we’re all using them, aren’t we?

If we are not part of the digital revolution and leave it to the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, they will develop products that may sell, but if they don’t improve outcomes, all that will have been accomplished is a disruption in a marketplace.

Wouldn’t it be so much better if we could disrupt disease?

The real opportunity in Healthcare Innovation

There are millions upon millions of folks – some in American, but most in the undeveloped world – who have never had, and will never have the opportunity for a patient-physician therapeutic relationship such as that I’ve described above. They have no one to call when Google tells them to “talk to your doctor”.

But the overwhelming majority of the do have cell phones. Amazing, really. We can’t get indoor plumbing modern contraception or malaria tents to those in need, but 80% of folks in the developing word have cellphones. If that’s not an opportunity and a potential market for healthcare innovation, then nothing is. If we can get any healthcare into the hands of these folks, even if it’s healthcare delivered by a mobile app, we have the potential to improve their lives.

Now, imagine that we docs were able to free ourselves from the 80% of our work that can be replaced by technology, and then redistributed ourselves (virtually and personally) across the globe where we were truly needed, so that we could provide needed healthcare to the entire planet?

Now that’s disruption.

Margaret Polaneczky is a board certified obstetrician-gynecologist and Associate Professor of Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. You can follow her at The Blog That Ate Manhattan where this post first appeared.

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I like this line “The therapeutic relationship between a doctor and a patient can never be replicated by an IPhone app”, its very true. and i also agree with @Alecia, machines never ever can be alternative to humans. each person have their own place in each other life, e.g wife cant take place of mother and vice versa. same thing we can say about this post also.

looking for more post


Alecia Ogren

How could you think of a machine as an alternative to a human physician or doctor.Machines may assist in several treatments but they can never be an alternative to humans this is insane.

We both have a mutual feeling Margaret , and I support all the experience you have posted.A machine won’t give you a shoulder to keep your head on if you feel link crying.It wont pamper your kid when he actually needs it while taking medication for the first time.


I’m also tired of having a serious medical condition, because until a surgeon didn’t do his job with follow up care, I did not have the medical condition. Now, my life is irrevocably changed. All I ask is that you treat me with the respect you want me to give you because of your title. I don’t give respect because of initials after your name. I have plenty of initials after my name, and I have just as many years of training as you do… and from the same institutions you revere: Hopkins, Harvard and Yale. Look at me when… Read more »


Surely there is a way to make the current EMT better. A way that helps the provider get more time with the patient. And maybe physicians and other care providers can lobby to decrease the amount of paperwork needed. EMT’s SHOULD be what a flat tax would be to the tax code. It should make life easier. They will never help the care giver unless the regulations requiring so many pages, whether electronic pages or paper, are decreased and the care providers are allowed more time with patients and less with a pen…or stylus.


Here ends the lesson.

Midwest doc
Midwest doc

Wow! The tones tell me of the trouble that is upon us. Breathless I am. You are all correct. Physician, patient, IT guy, victim? Flying is skilled. Pilots have an advantage. At take off , in flight, at landing they use a check list. Check it off. The flaps will be set. The degree of climb and landing is set. The skilled pilots are the ones we want when everything goes wrong. Land the plane in the river when you know of no options. Recently done by a beautiful person. Back to the land of mortals. Forget the pilot analogy.… Read more »


When I read the line “powerful and sacred relationship” I quit reading… Tell the people speaking in tongues and praying to the great sky fairy to save them hello for me. That ethos has no place in this century for the practice of medicine. You are a producer of a product/service; they are a consumer. You are the auto mechanic for the human vessel. About 800 billion dollars (larger than the entire defense budget which is already beyond bloated) needs to be hacked out of the global healthcare budget for the U.S. to remain solvent and competitive. Even the strongest… Read more »


Partly true.

You are the “consumer”, but I decide what services I will provide, not you.

That makes you a patient.
And you have chosen to be a patient.
You may conceal information from me at your peril.
You may take my advice or not.

It is your life. You should live it on your terms. Why let a computer share your details with the White House?

People pick their doctors by chance or reputation, but they keep them for the relationship.

Sneer all you want. You clearly do not have or want a doctor.

To your health, sir.

Mighty Casey

Terrific post. The issue that I see w/HIT in its current form is that it was built with traditional IT systems-think. The real promise of EHR is facilitating better comms between doc and patient – yes, so far we’ve got #epicfail, because of that legacy-think. Which has been enabled by the ACA/ARRA gold rush, giving us 800+ EHR vendors and an equal number of new data silos. Wot larks! How disruptive would it be to unleash a gaggle of MIT coding whiz kids on the APIs of the top 10 EHR vendors, and actually got them talking to each other?… Read more »


Greatly written Dr MARGARET.

This is reminder to the IT guys like me involved in healthcare about the limitations of using technology. It is easy for technology people to get deviated from what the actual healthcare deliver is. I have great respect for Mr Khosla, but I guess as a technology entrepreneur, he is bound to think in that angle.

I wish in the future that a great synergy with technology usage will come into healthcare but only as a means to enable it, not replace the current model.


Quintin, I wonder if you’ve ever been really sick. NP’s are great, as are many other mid-level providers. Some are better than some doctors I know. But the number of things that I’ve seen them do wrong is also scary (this includes delays in cancer care because they didn’t know that the problem wasn’t a generic routine issue). There’s a reason doctors go to school and train for as long as they do. And It’s not for the fancy letters and a claim to specialness. We are already seeing the decrease in ability even in residents with work hour regulations… Read more »