Why Health Care Tech Is Still So Bad

Robert M. Wachter | New York Times | March 21, 2015

Last year, I saw an ad recruiting physicians to a Phoenix-area hospital. It promoted state-of-the-art operating rooms, dazzling radiology equipment and a lovely suburban location. But only one line was printed in bold: “No E.M.R.” In today’s digital era, a modern hospital deemed the absence of an electronic medical record system to be a premier selling point. That hospital is not alone. A 2013 RAND survey of physicians found mixed reactions to electronic health record systems, including widespread dissatisfaction. Many respondents cited poor usability, time-consuming data entry, needless alerts and poor work flows.

If the only negative effect of health care computerization were grumpy doctors, we could muddle through. But there’s more. A friend of mine, a physician in his late 60s, recently described a visit to his primary care doctor. “I had seen him a few years ago and I liked him,” he told me. “But this time was different.” A computer had entered the exam room. “He asks me a question, and as soon as I begin to answer, his head is down in his laptop. Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. He looks up at me to ask another question. As soon as I speak, again it’s tap-tap-tap-tap.” “What did you do?” I asked. “I found another doctor.”

Even in preventing medical mistakes — a central rationale for computerization — technology has let us down. A recent study of more than one million medication errors reported to a national database between 2003 and 2010 found that 6 percent were related to the computerized prescribing system. At my own hospital, in 2013 we gave a teenager a 39-fold overdose of a common antibiotic. The initial glitch was innocent enough: A doctor failed to recognize that a screen was set on “milligrams per kilogram” rather than just “milligrams.” But the jaw-dropping part of the error involved alerts that were ignored by both physician and pharmacist. The error caused a grand mal seizure that sent the boy to the I.C.U. and nearly killed him...