President Obama has long trumpeted the benefits of more quickly adopting electronic health records, and he and his administration like to talk about such benefits of health information technology and claim they will reduce health care costs and improve medical outcomes.
While it’s true that the advantages of digital records can be substantial, these electronic health record (EHR) systems also give rise to increased liability risks for health care providers due to possible software or hardware problems or user errors, according to a new research study.
At Obama’s urging, Congress included $19 billion to hasten the adoption of EHR technology as part of last year’s economic stimulus plan, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
“With electronic health records, we are making health care safer; we’re making it more efficient; we’re making you healthier; and we’re saving money along the way,” Vice President Biden says. “These are four necessities we need for healthcare in the 21st-century.”
Obama began making the case for an increased investment in EHR systems even before being sworn in as president, talking up the need to make increased use of the technology in a speech outside Washington following his election.
“To improve the quality of our health care while lowering its cost, we will make the immediate investments necessary to ensure that, within five years, all of America’s medical records are computerized,” Obama said in a speech at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., in January 2009. “This will cut waste, eliminate red tape and reduce the need to repeat expensive medical tests.”
“But it just won’t save billions of dollars and thousands of jobs; it will save lives by reducing the deadly but preventable medical errors that pervade our health-care system,” Obama adds.
But two Case Western Reserve University professors, in a scholarly article published in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, shed light on liability concerns and electronic health records systems. Until now, such a linkage has received little attention in the legal literature.
Sharona Hoffman, professor of law and bioethics and co-director of Case Western Reserve’s Law-Medicine Center, and her husband, Andy Podgurski, professor of computer science at the university’s School of Engineering, have written “E-Health Hazards: Provider Liability and Electronic Health Record Systems,” which offers a comprehensive analysis of the liability risks associated with use of this complex and important technology.
Greater Risk For Malpractice, Privacy Breaches
Hoffman and Podgurski are well known for their research and findings documenting a national need for effective EHR regulation. They analyzed the need for federal regulation of electronic health record systems in the scholarly article “Finding a Cure: The Case for Regulation and Oversight of Electronic Health Record Systems” (Harvard Journal of Law and Technology, 2009). That paper came after two previous publications by the two on security and privacy issues of electronic health records.
“This new piece focuses on health care providers’ liability. Are they at greater risk for malpractice claims? Are they at greater risk for privacy breach claims? And I think the answer to all of that is yes,” Hoffman says in describing the thrust of the article.
“It’s very personal to health care providers,” she says. “It’s what everybody who sits at that computer and uses it to manage patient care needs to know.”
At first glance, a quick transition to digital heath records seems a normal, even overdue part of the wider flow of high-tech change. It may seem surprising that many health care professionals continue to jot down notes and prescriptions on paper.
Even so, many doctors might not be fully aware of the fresh liability risk, Podgurski says. Problems providing are can arise, for example, if an EHR system contains software bugs, if it is too complicated, or if training for users is insufficient.
“Whether or not there is a software bug, in the sense of a clear error that causes a wrong output, the usability of the system may be lacking, and that may lead a user to make mistakes that have safety implications,” he says.
The authors make a strong case that without thoughtful intervention and sound guidance from government and medical organizations, EHR technology may encumber rather than support clinicians and may hinder rather than promote health outcome improvements. Aiming to prevent potential problems, Hoffman and Podgurski propose a uniform process for developing authoritative clinical practice guidelines, and they explore how EHR technology can assist in determining best practices. They offer recommendations to address liability concerns.
The Department of Health and Human Services seeks to achieve nationwide usage of electronic health records by 2014.
So now is the best time to consider pitfalls, the researchers say. While the new Hoffman-Podgurski article draws attention to concerns over how EHR technology can lead to problems with patient care, the authors also point out that EHR system purchasers may never know about product flaws, because no regulation requires such disclosure, and some vendor contracts even prohibit it.
“If a computer problem causes an error in somebody’s drug prescription, medication dosage or surgical procedure, that can be catastrophic,” Hoffman says.
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.