George Lundberg, MD: The Promise of Health IT, and a Caveat

I was cited yesterday in a Medpage TODAY video by medical internet pioneer George Lundberg, MD, also former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). A link was made to Healthcare Renewal as well.

Health IT: Garbage In, Garbage Out

By George Lundberg, MD, Editor-at-Large, MedPage Today
November 15, 2011 (video and transcript)

Click on picture to link to article/video


Hello and Welcome. I'm Dr. George Lundberg and this is At Large at MedPage Today.

I started working with computers in medicine in 1963. I was a Captain in the United States Army Medical Corps in San Francisco when a Lieutenant Colonel told me to "automate the California Tumor Tissue Registry."

I said, "Yes, Sir. How would I do that?" He told me to walk across the Presidio parking lot and go into a building that had a big machine in it that is called a computer.

I did that, and for the next three months, I took the information that was on a bunch of 3 by 5 cards and converted that data into punch cards, which were then fed into the computer and out came an automated California Tumor Tissue Registry.

I was hooked and, although never a "techie," I never stopped finding ways to use computers in medicine. The goal was always better, faster, cheaper.

I remain a strong advocate, and have worked in a string of jobs that strived for that goal. One of the truths I learned early on was "G I G O" -- Garbage In; Garbage Out. That has not changed.

There are indeed a huge number of medical tasks that computers can do very well if properly programmed, managed, and utilized. The eminent UCSF academic clinician Dr. Bob Wachter was early in recognizing that there were also significant downsides in applying computers in practice.

Physicians are very smart. They will quickly adopt new technology that helps them get their job done if it does not waste their time.

Most American physicians have dragged their feet on implementing computers into their practices, and with good reasons. But now they should get on with it.

I write this column as it has been announced that 100,000 U.S. physicians and hospitals have signed up for the "meaningful use" incentive program and thus been able to take the government's money to help automate their organizations.

I think this is good and I praise Dr. David Blumenthal for his major efforts to make this happen.

However, there is another harsh critic worth listening to.

His name is Dr. Scot Silverstein, and he seems to have made it his life's work to call attention to really
bad problems that he discovers in this mass move to automation.

Heed his cautions. They are real.

But also recognize that where there is progress, there is trouble; but it can be worth the price.

That's my opinion. I'm Dr. George Lundberg, At Large for MedPage Today.

I thank Dr. Lundberg for his caveat, citing me, and agree with his position.

My father died in 2000 due to complications of failure to diagnose bilateral renal adenocarcinomas (malignant tumors of both kidneys) for about two years despite numerous warning signs. This occurred in a hospital without electronic medical records and was in part due to impaired clinician communications. His life could have been longer, and with far less suffering, had there been a safe and effective EHR.

Once discovered -- only due to my insistence on a renal arteriogram -- the doctors told my father he could not be treated and to "get his affairs in order." (They lost the later malpractice case that ensued.)

I was able to prolong my father's life for a few years by removing him from that hospital, "hospital A" and taking him to another hospital where he underwent bilateral heminephrectomies and other treatment. Let's call the other hospital "hospital B."

On the other hand...a caveat of my own:

Ironically and tragically, my mother died in June 2011 from complications of a medical error at "hospital B" that was due to
impaired clinician communications -- caused by an EHR that to my observation was itself unsafe and ineffective.

Therefore, my caveat is that we must be very mindful of the adage "
where there is progress, there is trouble; but it can be worth the price."

The price must respect medical ethics. It must not involve using patients, especially patients who have not been given informed consent and opt-out choices, as test subjects for software debugging.

As I wrote back to Dr. Lundberg:

Many thanks George. I agree with your assessments [on EHRs].

Now we have to work to ensure the pitfalls are habitually avoided.


Scot Silverstein

Here is a memorial bench I had erected to my parents at their grave last month, near where they ran a small community pharmacy for almost four decades.
My father, a pharmacist, was a go-to source for health information in the once-bucolic community of Somerton, in far Northeast Philadelphia, long before chain drugstores appeared in the region.

The inscription atop the bench reads "Owners of Lumar Pharmacy. Served This Community 1954 -1991."

They, like I, also toiled to safeguard and improve the health of the public.

May they rest in peace:

Click to enlarge.

-- SS