Health IT Amateurs, Logical Fallacy and Hospital Leadership: An Inhibitor to Good Health IT

An excellent three-part article on local providers' efforts to "join the electronic medical record/clinical IT movement", including a middle section "One doctor has reservations about EMR's design, usability", was published yesterday in the Dubuque (IA) Telegraph Herald.

I was cited as that doctor (subscription required).

The article began:

Dr. Scot Silverstein travels the country attending conferences [and other countries as well - ed.], speaking on panels and voicing concerns about health care's headlong rush into a reliance on electronic medical record systems.

"Headlong rush" is an accurate description of my beliefs, as in my "cart before the horse" posts here.

The newspaper reporter continues:

"Older and younger physicians alike are increasingly concerned about the poor design and poor usability of clinical IT," Silverstein said.  

Not only that, but so is ONC, the Institute of Medicine and the National Institute for Standards and Technology, among others, who I indicated were the source of my quotes.

The Drexel University College of Information Science and Technology faculty member calls "EMR" an anachronistic term from a time when the systems were merely storage tools for records.  "What is meant in 2012 is not just an innocuous 'filing cabinet,' but an enterprise clinical resource management and workflow control system - not just storing records, but regulating and governing all clinical behavior and action," Silverstein said.

That is, indeed, my own observation.

Silverstein contends such systems are inappropriate for some health-care environments, such as emergency rooms and intensive-care units.  "They slow down and distract clinicians due to their generally poor user interfaces, in the worst possible setting, and disrupt clinician cognition," he said.

Again, not only me.  As I had written to the reporter:

... These devices are not appropriate for high-risk, high-intensity environments such as ED's, ICU's etc.  They slow down and distract clinicians due to their generally poor user interfaces, in the worst possible setting, and disrupt clinician cognition.  But don't take my word for it.  See the 2012 report from the Institute of Medicine on healthcare IT safety (I wrote about it at, the National Institute of Standards and Technology report on clinical IT usability ( and the literature I collated at

In fact, document image management systems and human data abstractors are a good tradeoff to meet the needs of the most time-pressed clinicians whose time is a hospital's most valuable asset, and to make patient charts available when and where needed.  This is as opposed to "digital data field and form-based" (i.e., conventional) EMR's that force the clinicians to waste their time in clerical functions and distract them from pressing clinical matters and informational accuracy. 

He then reports:

Silverstein defines such cognition as the decision making and problem solving necessary to provide quality health care.


... Silverstein thinks current clinical IT programs focus too much on raw data and not enough on supporting a physician's decision-making abilities. "As a result, valuable time and energy is spent managing data as opposed to understanding the patient," he said. "Ideally, IT systems would place raw data into context with current medical knowledge to provide clinicians with computer models that depict the health status of the patient, including information on how different organ systems are interacting, epidemiological insight into the local prevalence of disease and potential patient-specific treatment regimens."
Actually, it's not just that I think and said these things.  The quote came verbatim, as I had indicated, from the prestigious National Research Council of the United States and their 2009 study on health IT, led by healthcare IT pioneers Drs. Octo Barnett and William Stead.

Any time logically consistent, ethics-based, common sense observations and opinions are expressed about health IT, however, one can always rely on a pundit or hospital executive for a misdirecting, illogical, and/or impertinent comment.

The expected came from Kay Takes, vice president of patient care services at Mercy Medical Center-Dubuque:

 ... Kay Takes, vice president of patient care services at Mercy Medical Center-Dubuque, said the hospital finds electronic medical records a help in the critical environment of the ICU.

"Specifically in the ICU, in the last 13 months we've gotten enhancements that allow us to download values from the medical equipment - it's automatically pulled into the medical record," she said "It's been fantastic. The availability of the information is enormously valuable. It's been a lot more of a benefit than a hindrance."

I speak from experience, in having been involved in developing those exact same capabilities in the mid 1990's (or, most accurately, protecting patients from the dangers created by the IT department in the project), that they are a convenience to those who formerly had to collect the data manually and write it on the ICU flowsheet.

The capabilities are also a mild convenience to clinicians who view the data, although the surface area of a paper flowsheet is a great advantage in seeing more data in one's field of view at one time than the usual small computer screen (to illustrate see my Feb. 2012 post EHR Workstation Designed by Amateurs at this link and my Jan. 2012 post An 'Anecdotal Complaint' About An ICU EHR at this link).

From the latter post:

... And we do still talk to each other – but even that doesn’t always “work out”, because we’ve lost our operational minds (collectively) – the shared-by-all compact, visually all data in one place, and temporally arranged – i.e., the shared nurse/doc/resp flowsheet [traditionally in an ICU, a long tabular scroll of paper for "at a glance" patient status overview - ed.] – where everybody was looking at the same page, which we no longer are – as the team is slowly discovering.

And which required no logon for sign-over bedside rounding (~40 minutes for 20-30 babies was the allotted time). The flowsheet needed only a 10-15 second glance to spot developing problems; “the computer” is effectively inaccessible in the time allotted for the twice daily sign-n-out “rounds”.

Ultimately, though, Ms. Takes, if quoted accurately, commits the logical fallacy of ignoratio elenchi ("ignorance of refutation", missing the point) – an argument that may in itself be valid, but does not address the issue in question.

For this convenience does not at all justify the downsides of EHRs, especially in an ICU:  increased time for task completion, increased risk of errors of commission or omission, and the other risks as outlined in sources such as FDA's 2010 Internal Memo on H-IT Risks, and recently by AHRQ in their IT Hazards Manager project (Appendix B).

Let's review those risks and failure modes from the AHRQ report, all observed empirically in the real world.  From the report:

A health IT hazard is a characteristic of any health IT application or its interactions with any other health care system (e.g., the people, equipment and work spaces of an ICU) that increases the risk that care processes will be compromised and patients harmed.

The potential outcomes of these hazards include medical privacy breach/identity theft, medical misadventures such as errors of commission or omission resulting in "close calls" (errors barely averted), or patient injury, or death, stress on clinicians reducing their performance, and documentation errors or data corruption increasing the risk of errors in the short, medium or long term.  In short, nothing you'd likely desire to occur while you or a family member was a patient:

• Information hard to find
• Difficult data entry
• Excessive demands on human memory
• Sub-optimal support of teamwork (situation awareness)
• Confusing information display
• Inadequate feedback to the user
• Mismatch between real workflows and HIT
• Mismatch between user mental models/expectations and HIT

Data Quality
• IT contributed to entry of data in the wrong patient’s record
• Organizational policy contributed to entry of data in the wrong patient’s record
• Patient information/results routed to the wrong recipient
• Discrepancy between database and displayed, printed or exported data
• Faulty reference information
• Unpredictable elements of the patient’s record available only on paper/scanned documents
• Lost data
• Inaccurate natural language processing
• Virus or other malware

Decision Support
• Excessive non-specific recommendations/alerts
• Faulty recommendation
• Missing recommendation or safeguard
• Inadequate clinical content
• Inappropriate level of automation

Vendor Factors

• Sub-optimal interfaces between applications and devices
• Faulty vendor configuration recommendation
• Unusable software implementation tools
• Non-configurable software
• Inadequate vendor Testing
• Inadequate vendor software change control
• Inadequate control of user access
• Faulty software design (specification)

Local Implementation

• Faulty local configuration or programming
• Inadequate local testing
• Inadequate project management
• Inadequate software change control
• Inadequate control of user access
• Suboptimal interface management

Other factors
• Inadequate training
• Excessive workload (including cognitive)
• Inadequate organizational change management
• Inadequate management of system downtime or slowdown
• Unclear policies
• Compromised communication among clinicians (i.e., during handoffs)
• Interactions with other (non-HIT) care systems
• Physical environment (e.g., hardware location, lighting, engineering)
• Inadequately secured data
• Hardware Failure
• Use error in the absence of other factors

The convenience of automated data collection through an EMR system comes at, one might say, a slight cost that may not be realized by health IT amateurs.** 

Unfortunately, their lack of knowledge of these issues reduces the caution and "pushback" required for good health IT to become the norm, and permits bad HIT to be sold.

-- SS

** Amateurs in the sense that I am a radio amateur, not a professional, formally trained telecommunications engineer, and would never take a major role in an enterprise telecommunications project, especially a mission-critical one.

8/27/12  Addendum:

A typical, anonymous, irrational response of the type we've seen on this blog before (as for example here and here) has been posted as a comment to the newspaper story:

"nemesis" posted at 1:19 pm on Mon, Aug 27, 2012. 

He travels the country complaining about existing systems? Perhaps the good prof could spend a little time designing the ideal interface/system and see if he can get anyone interested. Surely his design would win them all over.

The problem with this type of comment, of course, is that it's logically fallacious (a form of ad hominem and an odd "appeal to perfection") and irrelevant.  It is no way responds to or refutes the issues I raise in the article.   

It likely comes from a health IT pundit of some sort, but hopefully not someone in a position of authority.  In medicine, the rule of thumb is simple:  "Critical thinking always, or your patient's dead."

-- SS