Health IT’s role in reducing medical errors
Dr. David Blumenthal | October 7, 2010
Two landmark reports by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) changed Americans’ perception of their health care system and launched today’s drive to improve the quality and safety of medical care in America. The reports were To Err Is Human, published in 1999, and Crossing the Quality Chasm, released in 2001.
Both these reports highlighted the important potential role that health information technology (HIT) could play in improving health care quality and reducing medical errors. In fact, Recommendation #9 in Crossing the Quality Chasm called for “renewed national commitment to building an information infrastructure” and said: “This commitment should lead to the elimination of most handwritten clinical data by the end of the decade.”
The end of that decade is now just three months away, and not to mince words, we’re behind the ambitious schedule that the IOM report envisioned. Nonetheless, we have at last made the substantial commitment that was called for in the report.
Last year in the HITECH Act, Congress and the President authorized $27 billion in Medicare and Medicaid incentive payments for providers who adopt and make meaningful use of certified electronic health records (EHRs). At the same time, the Act created $2 billion in new programs to support the transition to HIT-assisted care. And this summer, the regulatory framework was completed for Stage 1 of the Meaningful Use path toward an EHR-based future in health care.
With the engines of change now in place, it is time to bring closer focus to other key issues for achieving the full potential benefits of HIT. One of these is the issue of improving patient safety.
We know, both in theory and practice, that HIT-assisted care can reduce errors and improve patient safety. In particular:
- Reliable access to complete personal health information is the foundation of safe and effective care. EHRs are inherently superior to paper in delivering such access.
- Even more uniquely, EHRs can use their computing power to automatically cross-check personal information and other sources. With such backup, clinicians can be automatically alerted when drugs or other treatments may be contraindicated because of allergies, potential drug interactions, or other factors.
At the same time, however, it would be naïve to suppose that HIT-assisted care can deliver its full patient safety benefits in a single stroke – or that HIT will not present its own safety issues. Clinicians need to become familiar with new EHR systems, which will take time. EHR systems themselves need to evolve and improve. We need to ensure that the “decision support” information they provide is accurate and personalized. Their interfaces need to grow in user-friendliness. Even safety alerts need to find the right medium and avoid producing “alert fatigue.”
These challenges can be met – and indeed, the very “fix-ability” of HIT-based care can be one of its primary safety benefits. HIT systems tend to record and expose patient safety problems when they occur, while paper-based care too often hides them. And EHRs are amendable to rapid, systemic correction of problems – while corrections in a non-systemic, paper-based clinic can take years to accomplish, even when they are identified.
How can we maximize patient safety through HIT-based care? What roles and actions by government, the private sector, and health care providers themselves can help achieve the full potential benefits that were sought in those seminal IOM reports?
As we address these questions, there is no better source of guidance than the IOM itself, building on the same expertise and convening power that produced its initial reports 10 years ago. For that reason, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology has contracted with IOM for a follow-up one-year study. In this study, IOM will:
- Identify approaches to promote the safety-enhancing features of HIT while protecting patients from any safety problems associated with HIT and preventing HIT-related patient safety problems before they occur;
- Identify approaches for surveillance and reporting activities to bring about rapid detection and correction of patient safety problems;
- Address the potential roles of private sector entities such as accrediting and certification bodies as well as patient safety organizations and professional and trade associations; and
- Examine existing authorities and potential roles for key federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
As this study is carried out, we will move where appropriate to improve surveillance, reporting, product safety, and clinician performance. But at the same time, we will anticipate a “deep dive” in knowledge synthesizing and a new round of productive recommendations from the IOM.
There is every reason to believe that HIT-assisted care will be transformative for American medicine, but no reason to think the change will be easy or instantaneous. We are returning to the IOM as a key partner in helping to refine the course that it first helped to chart a decade ago.