Electronic records, medical malpractice — and the inescapable human factor

side note: A large component to President Obama’s healthcare initiative centers on implementing electronic medical records software as a way of cutting costs. The author of this LA Times article makes the argument that while EMRs may reduce errors, they will never eliminate all errors. Do you agree with this Time’s story? Can a system be created that takes into account human error?

LA Times

We all know that medical errors happen — and most of us have read that electronic medical records will help deal with that problem.

But electronic record-keeping doesn’t remove the human factor. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, has found that electronically alerting doctors of suspicious test results doesn’t mean doctors will a) open the electronically delivered alert or b) act on it if they do.

And though you’d think that alerting more than one physician would reduce the chances that a patient would slip through the cracks, the study found just the opposite: Suspicious test results were less likely to be acted on, not more, presumably because each physician assumed the other doctor had taken the necessary steps.

The study, by Dr. Hardeep Singh of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston and co-workers, was conducted in a Veterans Affairs outpatient facility from November 2007 to June 2008. The VA has a fairly sophisticated electronic medical records system. The study focused on reports of imaging exams — CT scans, MRIs, mammograms, sonograms and radiograms.

Under the system, when a result is abnormal and needs follow-up, an “alert” window comes up on the doctor’s computer screen. It stays there for two weeks. Then it goes away.

During the time period studied, there were 123,638 imaging studies. Of those, there were 1,196 alerts indicating something was potentially abnormal.

Of the alerts, 217 (18.1%) were unopened after two weeks.

And of the 1,196 alerts, 92 (7.7%) didn’t receive timely follow-up, such as a call to a patient or ordering of more tests. (The definition of timely follow-up was within four weeks.)

Perhaps surprisingly, the rates of poor follow-up were about the same for reports that were unopened and reports that were opened.

But in cases when a radiologist actually got on the phone and talked to a physician about a test, follow-up was more likely. (This may have partly been due to those results being more serious than other abnormal tests, the authors said.)

The study doesn’t say how this electronic system compares to ones where it’s all paperwork and word of mouth: surprisingly, there aren’t good comparative data to be had, the authors note. But it does have a few suggestions about what it found:

Read the rest of the LA Times story

Lowering the costs of your physician malpractice insurance is something that everyone needs to consider….especially when you consider the increased costs of running a practice under the ACA. Implementing EMR/EHR is extremely costly.