The debate over ObamaCare has obscured another important example of government meddling in medicine. Starting this year, physicians like myself who treat Medicare patients must adopt electronic health records, known as EHRs, which are digital versions of a patient’s paper charts. If doctors do not comply, our reimbursement rates will be cut by 1%, rising to a maximum of 5% by the end of the decade.
I am an unwilling participant in this program. In my experience, EHRs harm patients more than they help.
The program was inspired by the record-keeping models used by integrated health systems, especially those of the nonprofit consortium Kaiser Permanente and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The federal government mandated in the 2009 stimulus bill that all medical providers that accept Medicare adopt the records by 2015. Bureaucrats and politicians argued that EHRs would facilitate “evidence-based medicine,” thereby improving the quality of care for patients.
But for all the talk of “evidence-based medicine,” the federal government barely bothered to study electronic health records before nationalizing the program. The Department of Health and Human Services initiated a five-year pilot program in 2008 to encourage physicians in 12 cities and states to use electronic health records. One year later, the stimulus required EHRs nationwide. By moving forward without sufficient evidence, lawmakers ignored the possibility that what worked for Kaiser or the VA might not work as well for Dr. Jones.
Which is exactly what is happening today. Electronic health records are contributing to two major problems: lower quality of care and higher costs.
The former is evident in the attention-dividing nature of electronic health records. They force me to physically turn my attention away from patients and toward a computer screen—a shift from individual care to IT compliance. This is more than a mere nuisance; it is an impediment to providing personal medical attention.
Doctors now regularly field patient complaints about this unfortunate reality. The problem is so widespread that the American Medical Association—a prominent supporter of the electronic-health-record program—felt compelled to defend EHRs in a 2013 report, implying that any negative experiences were the fault of bedside manner rather than the program.
Apparently our poor bedside manner is a national crisis, judging by how my fellow physicians feel about the EHR program. A 2014 survey by the industry group Medical Economics discovered that 67% of doctors are “dissatisfied with [EHR] functionality.” Three of four physicians said electronic health records “do not save them time,” according to Deloitte. Doctors reported spending—or more accurately, wasting—an average of 48 minutes each day dealing with this system.
That plays into the issue of higher costs. The Deloitte survey also found that three of four physicians think electronic health records “increase costs.” There are three reasons. First, physicians can no longer see as many patients as they once did. Doctors must then charge higher prices for the fewer patients they see. This is also true for EHRs’ high implementation costs—the second culprit. A November report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that the average five-physician primary-care practice would spend $162,000 to implement the system, followed by $85,000 in first-year maintenance costs. Like any business, physicians pass these costs along to their customers—patients.
Then there’s the third cause: Small private practices often find it difficult to pay such sums, so they increasingly turn to hospitals for relief. In recent years, hospitals have purchased swaths of independent and physician-owned practices, which accounted for two-thirds of medical practices a decade ago but only half today. Two studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association and one in Health Affairs published in 2014 found that, in the words of the latter, this “vertical integration” leads to “higher hospital prices and spending.”
Proponents of electronic health records nonetheless claim that EHRs decrease record-keeping errors and increase efficiency. My own experience again indicates otherwise and is corroborated by research.
The EHR system assumes that the patient in front of me is the “average patient.” When I’m in the treatment room, I must fill out a template to demonstrate to the federal government that I made “meaningful use” of the system. This rigidity inhibits my ability to tailor my questions and treatment to my patient’s actual medical needs. It promotes tunnel vision in which physicians become so focused on complying with the EHR work sheet that they surrender a degree of critical thinking and medical investigation.
Not surprisingly, a recent study in Perspectives in Health Information Management found that electronic health records encourage errors that can “endanger patient safety or decrease the quality of care.” America saw a real-life example during the recent Ebola crisis, when “patient zero” in Dallas, Thomas Eric Duncan, received a delayed diagnosis due in part to problems with EHRs.
Congress has devoted scant attention to this issue, instead focusing on the larger ObamaCare debate. But ending the mandatory electronic-health-record program should be a plank in the Republican Party’s health-care agenda. For all the good intentions of the politicians who passed them, electronic health records have harmed my practice and my patients.