Help Us, Atul Gawande, You’re Our Only Hope
By John Gobron
I recently had the pleasure of reading Atul Gawande’s essay, "Slow Ideas," published in The New Yorker. In it, Gawande discusses two innovations from healthcare’s past that profoundly and forever improved the delivery of patient care: anesthesia and antiseptics. Both advances provided obvious and impactful benefits to patients. One (anesthesia) was immediately and universally adopted, while the other (antiseptics) took a generation to become commonplace.
Why did the use of ether to numb pain "spread like a contagion?" Gawande argues it was because, while the patient was clearly better off in not suffering the agony of the surgeon’s knife, the surgeon himself benefited as well. After all, cutting someone open to practice painful, invasive surgery back then was, in fact, a risky business. Compare that to infection control. Back in 1875, antiseptic efforts were practiced by spraying everything and everybody with carbolic acid. As the gentle reader might imagine, this wasn’t exactly a welcome or pleasurable experience for physicians.
As I read on, I kept waiting for what seemed to me to be the inevitable extension of the essay to address healthcare IT, where the adoption of the electronic health record promises to forever improve the entire healthcare ecosystem. After completing the article, I asked myself the sad question, "Are EMRs the carbolic acid of our generation?"
It is difficult to argue against the current and future benefit of the electronic medical record. Fourteen years ago, the Institute of Medicine estimated that as many as 98,000 patients per year die as a result of preventable medical errors, many of which were rooted in problems related to paper-based documentation and communications. Four years ago, the US government established a "pay then punish" wealth redistribution system for funding the adoption and actual use of EMRs. Outside of our healthcare biosphere, other industries accomplished similar computerization initiatives years ago. Yet despite the benefits, incentives, and examples, EMR adoption is mired in the 50 percent range. Why?
This really is the $23 billion dollar question, isn’t it? If there is a simple answer, it is that the physician does not benefit enough. Does this make them bad actors? Yes in the case of Travis Stork, but no for most everyone else. No other industry asks its highest-level knowledge workers to document the transactional activity found in most EMR data entry fields. CEOs don’t take minutes at board meetings, CFOs don’t tally balance sheets, lawyers don’t do stenography, and Congressmen don’t … well, I’ll leave this one alone, but hopefully you get the point.
Much has been written, especially here on HIStalk, about usability and design and other factors that go in to the actual EMR technologies. But the simple fact remains that for most physicians who practiced medicine in the paper age, paper was and remains better than anything that appears on a glass screen – for them, that is. Physically writing information down in a paper chart or even on a 3×5 card is much faster and more intimate than using a clunky PC or even a sexy tablet. Faster yet, is just telling someone else what to write down or enter into said computer or Appley gadget.
Let’s face it: physicians become physicians to treat patients and to participate in the miraculous science of medicine. Under that paradigm, paper is really good for the physician workflow and computers are really good for research. A physician can physically maintain her focus on the patient infinitely better when writing than when looking back and forth at a keyboard and screen.
In his summary thoughts on adoption, Gawande notes, "To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change. You have to understand what’s getting in their way." What is getting in the physician’s way? Time, first and foremost. With today’s clinical computing workflow, it simply takes too much time and proves too distracting to document within the requirements and constraints set out by IOM, Joint Commission, HITECH, HIPAA, Meaningful Use, etc.
Much like adopting the use of sterile instruments and working conditions, adopting the use of an electronic health record adds burden to the physicians. As Gawande notes, “although both [anesthesia and antiseptics] made life better for patients, only one made life better for doctors.” Today, for some reason we are asking these same doctors to do what amounts to data entry. Therein I think is our lesson for anyone engaged in the mission of better adoption of EMRs — make life better for doctors. It’s not really as complicated a task when you look at it that way.
Think about all of the unlucky people who died from infection between 1875-1905 while healthcare waited a full generation to adopt an enormously beneficial change. Are we to see the similar fate of 98,000 people per year for the next 30 years to achieve the same outcome? Can the dead teach the living, and 138 years later, make it better this time around?
As I see it, we have three choices:
- Send a holographic message to Atul Gawande asking him to figure this out for us (Inga has volunteered to send this message, btw).
- Sit back and wait a generation until our digital native teenagers mature to replace today’s clinical computing-averse physicians.
- Redesign and bind the disparate processes of clinical workflow, clinical computing, and reimbursement together so that the benefits of healthcare as an electronic medium align with the efforts needed to achieve clinical computing adoption.
Healthcare delivery organizations, if you want to finally realize the benefits of improved outcomes, patient engagement, and ultimately preventative care, make the required workflow and infrastructure easy and economically advantageous for physicians to use-without needing to be bribed by the government.
I believe today’s healthcare executives are in the enviable position of being able to write their names in the history books as the alchemists who transformed their foaming beakers of physician-burning carbolic acid into the clinical computing manifestation of nitrous oxide. In addition to smiling, your doctors, your health system, your nation’s economy, and your patients will thank you when you pull this off.
I close with Atul Gawande’s simple instructions. “Use the force, Luke”, (sorry, I couldn’t resist) What Dr. Gawande actually said was, "We yearn for frictionless, technological solutions. But people talking to people is still the way that norms and standards change."
John Gobron is president and CEO of AventuraHQ.