For more than a decade, a running joke among electronic health (EHR) record skeptics has been that its clunky “decision support” functions, defined as the on-screen provision of clinical knowledge and patient information that helps physicians enhance patient care , is condemned to always remain an innovation of the future. Yet, while published studies like this continue to fuel doubt about the prime-time readiness of this EHR-based technology, a growing body of clinical research suggests that the science is getting better. Jonathan Cohn, writing in The Atlantic, points out that IBM’s Watson has achieved enough of a level of sophistication to warrant clinical trials at prestigious institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic and Memorial Sloan-Kettering.
Unfortunately, there is an under-recognized threat to EHR-based decision support: the dysfunctional U.S. tort system.
The experience of Google’s “driverless car” may be instructive. According to National Public Radio, years of testing is putting this technology within reach of consumers. Thanks to the prospect of fewer accidents, better transportation options for the disabled, reduced traffic congestion and lower hydrocarbon consumption, some states have responded by attempting to support this promising technology with “enabling legislation.”
Unfortunately, the legislation in some state jurisdictions is being hindered by the prospect of complicated lawsuits. As physicians know all too well, when a single mishap lands in court, adroit attorneys can use the legal doctrine of joint and several liability to tap multiple deep pockets to increase the potential size of the award. In the case of driverless cars – in which the owner is more of a passenger than a driver – the accidents that are bound to happen could metastasize upstream from the owner and tie up the driverless automobile manufacturers and all of their business partners in time-consuming and expensive litigation.
Ditto the EHR’s decision support technology. Even with Watson’s intelligence, medicine will remain imperfect and allegations of medical mistakes will be inevitable. When lawsuits arise, the defendant medical providers will likely argue that their judgment was clouded by the very technology that otherwise helped them better serve their other patients. Personal injury lawyers are unlikely to let that theory of liability go unused. Tapping the same kind of lucrative joint-and-several legal theories that have served them so well in decades of standard malpractice litigation, they’ll undoubtedly be happy to name the EHR manufacturer and all of its decision-support business partners in these lawsuits.