National Health IT Week is underway. According to the press release, “This annual celebration is a time for all of us to reflect on the progress we have made and recommit ourselves to advancing the promise of health information technology.” The newest National Coordinator for Health IT, Vindell Washington, MD will host a Twitter chat on Tuesday starting at 11am ET using the hashtag #AskVindell. Topics include the current and future state of health IT as well as questions and answers. There are all kinds of National Health IT Week activities taking place across the country. I’m out with clients this week so I won’t make it to any of the festivities. Still, I wanted to take a chance to reflect on my own time in the Health IT trenches.
I was fortunate to attend a medical school that rotated its students through hospitals that embraced technology. Looking back, some of it was pretty primitive, but back in the day we thought we were cutting edge as we navigated through the lab system with light pens tethered to green-screen terminals. One hospital had started its own EMR. Even in the early days, it had most of the data needed to round on patients – laboratory data, vital signs, medication lists, and more. It was a luxury to prepare for rounds at a single workstation rather than having to round up paper charts and dig through them.
Surprisingly, the more advanced hospital was a community hospital rather than the primary academic hospital. Looking back, it may have been easier to pilot informatics platforms on the community side since the roster of admitting physicians was fairly stable. Although residents and students participated in patient care, it wasn’t at the same volume as the academic hospital. The community hospital was progressive in other ways, building the first hospitalist program in the city and serving as a pioneer in laparoscopic surgery.
My medical school class was the first one to have email accounts issued to everyone with the expectation that we’d actually use it, as opposed to it being optional. Granted, it was Lotus Notes, but it was high tech at the time. We still did our histology coursework looking at carousel after carousel of 35mm slides, however. We had a transcription service where someone took notes at every class and distributed them; without laptops, we took old-fashioned paper notes then typed them up later, printed them, and photocopied them. No one seemed to put two and two together that we could have been emailing them around. Today, my school augments its gross anatomy program with virtual anatomy – 3D computer simulations based on CT scans taken of live individuals. Very different than the cadaver cross sections that we worked with.
Health IT really started to boom while I was in my residency training, with increased nursing documentation being done electronically, although paper copies were still printed and added to the chart. There was a lot of fighting over PCs because the hospital hadn’t really thought through the computerization piece or what it would look like from a workflow standpoint. The residents thought we were cool because we could dictate our History and Physical documents and Admission notes using Dragon. It not only helped avoid the lengthy, handwritten note process but made sure the documents were on the chart quickly compared to the turn-around time required for “regular” transcription. No one at the time thought of outsourcing transcription services to 24×7 resources in another country, and certainly no one thought much about natural language processing.
I purchased my first handheld device as a Chief Resident. While others seemed to be leaning towards the Palm Pilot platform, I went with the Pocket PC. Although I legitimized my purchase by using it to take attendance at Grand Rounds and to use Excel to track various program requirements, I secretly thought the coolest feature was the fact that you could put music on it. The ultimate mix tape was now in your pocket at all times (or at least as long as the battery lasted). I found that Pocket PC in a drawer a few weeks ago and it fired right up. The data files were gone but the music was all still there, providing a much-appreciated blast from the past.
When I opened my solo practice, I was supposed to be on an EHR from day one, but there were implementation issues, forcing me to spend a year on paper charts in an office that wasn’t built to house paper charts. When we finally got our system, we learned a lot about vendor bait-and-switch, starting when the trainer first arrived and tried to train us on a system that was different than what we actually had installed. It went downhill from there and ultimately resulted in a de-installation. That experience, however, set the groundwork for my career in health IT, as hospital leadership realized I had been through the wringer but learned quite a bit, and could be an asset to their future EHR plans. I slowly crossed over into the technology side of things and never looked back.
People occasionally ask whether I think it was a waste of time to go to medical school. They often assume I don’t see patients anymore. Being a physician first was critical to me winding up in the wild and crazy world I work in today, and I wouldn’t trade it even with the hideous student loans and the long, torturous work hours. I learned health IT on the side and on the fly, while building a practice and settling in as a young physician. We’ve gone a long way past many of the things I used to struggle with early in my career – trying to access charts in the middle of the night, dealing with pharmacies that weren’t comfortable with electronic prescriptions, and bringing faxes directly into the EHR. Now we’re moving into an age where pharmacogenomics is a reality and we have the world’s library at the tips of our fingers at all times.
I remember doing an interview for the hospital newsletter early in my career. The CMO called to blast me for saying that having computers in the office allowed me to look things up during the patient visit. He felt that my statement implied that I was inexperienced and that patients would avoid me. Quite the opposite: Patients appreciated having a physician who was willing to look things up and show them the actual literature so that we could make decisions together. Having technology in the room transformed how I practiced in a positive way, and I know it made a particular difference for many of my patients. Sometimes, as we reflect on how we work with technology today, we tend to demonize it without putting into perspective what our daily lives would look like without it.
Even though it sometimes drives me crazy, I’m grateful for healthcare IT and what it has done for me personally. I’m hopeful for what the future holds, even despite the mandates and regulations. I can’t wait to look back in another five or 10 years and see where we’ve gone.
How has health IT impacted you, personally or professionally? Email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.