Advances in technology have fundamentally altered and inarguably improved the way we drive, shop and travel. Just ask anybody who uses Google Maps, Foodler or Uber.
Sadly, however, information technology has failed to deliver so far in the most crucial service of all – healthcare. This is at least partly because electronic health records (EHR) systems grew out of the computer systems that run the hospital’s inner workings — patient scheduling, admission and discharge, staff payroll and accounts receivable. For system designers, physicians’ needs were an afterthought, which is problematic because physicians are, after all, the linchpin of the healthcare delivery system.
To begin pulling healthcare IT out of the past, we must first take a look at how it supports physicians. The short answer today is “not well.” In fact, EHRs are creating as much frustration as benefit. Problems include poor presentation of patient data, fragmented information sources and unwieldy user interfaces that require dozens of mouse clicks or screen taps. It’s no wonder more than half of physicians who responded to a recent survey claimed their EHR system had negative impacts on costs, efficiency and productivity – three things IT should help, not hinder. These issues not only affect physicians’ professional satisfaction, they contribute to the phenomenon of physician burnout, which is a growing concern across healthcare. Studies show some 30 percent of primary-care physicians age 35 to 49 plan to leave medicine, and there’s an expected shortage of 25,000 surgeons by 2025. A Mayo Clinic study released earlier this year directly connected the burnout problem to physicians’ use of EHRs.
Today’s EHRs have done little more than “pave the cow paths.” We’ve gotten rid of paper in the hospital and made processes electronic, which is why EHRs can legitimately claim to have reduced transcription errors. But eliminating paper is just table stakes; the critical next phase is to do for healthcare what Uber has done for transportation: Reinvent the process so it’s optimized for and native to the technology that enables it.
Patients and physicians can and should advocate for such change. Today, patients have access to a vast body of information—the notes a doctor took, quality of care rankings, the level of personalization provided—and it’s only going to increase. As Lygeia Ricciardi, former director of the Office of Consumer eHealth at ONC said, “Getting access to personal health information is the start of engaging patients to be full partners in their care.”
Patients of the (near) future are going to choose alternate care if they experience poor administrative practices, or if they don’t feel a connection with their doctor. And patients will know when technology inefficiency negatively impacts their quality of care, whether it’s due to admin issues or diagnosis.
In the coming decade we will begin to realize the benefits of computing and genomics in determining patient care. For example, modern medicine delivers anesthesia based on a number of factors, such as height, weight and age. But people metabolize it very differently, and you can’t know how an individual will react unless you look at the genome. For the 20 percent of people for whom drugs do not work, it’s usually because of their specific DNA. But since this is something we’re currently not tracking, physicians are left to trial and error. Doctors should know what works for each type of person—perhaps based on what has worked for similar people in similar situations in the real world in the past.
On the technology side, EHR vendors aren’t going to get us to the next step. We must look to data, data scientists and innovative start-ups. Medical research and development is poised to move from a traditional molecular “hypothesis/proof” model to a data-centric “observation/analysis” model, in which it’s possible to do a trial without a (clinical) trial. Upwards of 90 percent of Americans are willing to share their medical data to benefit care and treatment research. We currently have enough institutions with enough data to build algorithms and apply them to other populations in such a way that we can change—and dramatically improve—healthcare.
It’s time to make healthcare work better for both patients and providers. Leveraging the innovative, ground-breaking tools we have at our disposal will propel healthcare quality and efficiency forward. Making EHRs and other healthcare IT as intuitive to use as Uber, Foodler or Google Maps will not only improve the quality of care, it will help to enhance the overall healthcare experience for everyone involved in it.