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Medical Facts & Fiction: Electronic Records

by George Thomas, MD, PhD

There have been many articles published about the benefits of electronic medical records. The US Government has appropriated millions of dollars to aid in their development and adoption. The claim is that the adoption of such systems will save money by reducing the number of duplicated tests and also reduce patient mortality and morbidity because fewer errors will be made.

I will leave aside the question of the possible (unproven as yet) benefits of computer-generated hospital records and notes. I will note, however, that computerized hospital notes and orders use up more of a doctor's time, and that is the one dimension we already have too little of. It used to take me 5 minutes to admit a patient with pen and paper. Now it takes at least 25 minutes on a computer, in part because of "mission creep". By mission creep I allude for instance to the U.S. Census, which is mandated by the U.S. Constitution to do a head count every 10 years to re-apportion U.S. Congressional districts among the states, but now also requires you to tell the government how many bathrooms, bedrooms, and telephones you have, among other details. And when the computer crashes, all the residents are helpless.

I admit to two hospitals. In one of them, I cannot even admit a patient unless I answer the question: should the patient I am admitting have a flu and pneumonia vaccine at discharge (there is no place on the form to indicate that the patient refuses). In the other hospital (and only God knows why) they ask for the birth date of the admitting doctor. This information can't possibly help the patient, but someone wants the information. They even set up the answer matrix so that 00-00-0000 does not work. So now most of the doctors were born on 11-11-1911, because that is the easiest number to write that the computer will accept.

I am also concerned because not once in the past 5 years has a nurse called me from the ward to ask if my drug order was correct. The order goes by the computer to the pharmacy department, which delivers it pre-labeled to the floor. The nurses seem to think that a computer-generated label must be correct, and besides, the pharmacy filled it. Of course the pharmacologist does not know the patient nearly as well as the nurse does, but it is efficient! I don't even want to discuss my reaction when I ask an intern for a patient's Hct., and I am told that it isn't in the computer yet. It never occurs to them that the number is generated by the hematology laboratory, and you can call them up for the result.

Now let's look at electronic medical records, and their benefit for the patient. When I started my practice, I used to give all my patients a photo-reduced copy of their EKG to keep with them, because when a patient hits the ER with chest pain, the doctor certainly wants to know what the previous EKG looked like. I found that fewer than 10% of patients carried the copy with them, so I stopped this practice.

Now a doctor's medical record system is supposed to be compliant with, and interactive with, the hospital's system. This requires a physician to be HIPAA compliant. This means the changing of your hospital password every 90 days, or else you cannot log on to the hospital computer. How in the world can two hospital computers exchange data? I can't imagine changing your password every 90 days for every hospital in the US, and the SmartCard still requires a password.

I also know that every doctor wants to review Xrays and MRI results personally before surgery, etc. So even if I have a transmitted electronic report about the result of an MRI, I would want to repeat it if the patient's treatment depended on it. This also holds true for cardiac echoes, stress tests, cardiac angiograms,etc. If you were a patient, wouldn't you want your doctor to personally review a study before operating? You also would not trust the result of a technically difficult lab test (e.g. N-terminal parathyroid hormone) unless you had total faith in the lab, and therefore you would probably repeat the test. And if different labs with different techniques have different normal ranges, this complicates matters still further. Similarly, where cancer is concerned, the pathologist and oncologist will want to review the biopsy slides personally, rather than rely on a written report.

All the above can be summarized by saying that no doctor would depend on a written report alone, but would want to see the actual data. If details are needed in the ER about a patient, then the ER doctor will probably communicate with the family doctor for information that is not in the computer system (e.g. the patient uses cocaine, is bisexual, etc.) because no computer system is totally secure. There is always critical data about a patient that is known very well by the family doctor but never makes it into the chart because of its sensitive nature. I would never write down in an office chart that a patient hates his wife or is having an affair if I know the wife has legal access to the chart, or vice versa. I am not being paranoid about the non-security of data in the hospital system, because in the last 2 years I have received communications from 3 Veteran's Hospitals that their information systems have been hacked.

I yield to no one in agreeing that computers are terrific for transferring information. What concerns me is the uncritical acceptance of information on a computer, and where the paper backup is when the system crashes. When patient lives are at stake, there must be an accessible backup. As I recall, a few months ago LAX had to divert planes for 3 hours because of a malfunction in the computer program that linked their radar systems. There have also been recent articles on radiation overdoses received by patients because the technicians did not understand the intricacies of computer-operated radiation beams. And with a typical automobile having 30 computers with thousands of lines of code, it's a miracle that there aren't more recalls.

Let me close with the following anecdote (and I repeat that I am not a Luddite, and was an early fan of Wylbur): "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the first fully automatic transcontinental airplane ride that is fully operated by onboard computers. We have 3 computers, and therefore double redundancy for safety. This system has been tested thousands of times. Relax as we take off, and be assured that absolutely nothing can go wrong, go wrong, go wrong, go wrong, go wrong..."

About the Author George Thomas, M.D., Ph.D.

George Thomas has a Ph.D. in physics as well as M.D.

Dr. Thomas has written publications in both physics and medical journals, is a reviewer for both physics and medical journals, a member of science and medical honor societies, a former physics professor and then medical professor at a medical school. He has been on the editorial board for both physics and medical journals, been an encyclopedia author, worked on government-sponsored research and has acted as a contract reviewer for a number of years, as well as has performed volunteer work with a chronic disease group.

Dr. Thomas has been in private practice of family medicine for over 25 years. His practice is located in the New York City region.

Dr. George Thomas can be reached at ghthomas2@aol.com.

This blog is also published by George Thomas, M.D., Ph.D. (Physics) at http://ghthomas.blogspot.com/.

Dr. Thomas can be reached by e-mail at ghthomas2@aol.com, or by snail mail at P.O. Box 247, Hillsdale, N.Y., 12529

The concepts discussed here are based upon the author's personal professional experiences with patients, or upon his review of the pertinent medical and/or physics literature. Before acting on anything written here, you should discuss it with your personal physician as well as your personal physicist.

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