A Significant Additional Observation on the PA Patient Safety Authority Report "The Role of the Electronic Health Record in Patient Safety Events" -- Risk

At a Dec. 13, 2012 post "Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority: The Role of the Electronic Health Record in Patient Safety Events" I alluded to risk in a comment in red italics:

... Reported events were categorized by their reporter-selected harm score (see Table 1). Of the 3,099 EHR-related events, 2,763 (89%) were reported as “event, no harm” (e.g., an error did occur but there was no adverse outcome for the patient) [a risk best avoided to start with, because luck runs out eventually - ed.], and 320 (10%) were reported as “unsafe conditions,” which did not result in a harmful event. 

The focus of the report is on how the "events" did not cause harm.  Thus the relatively mild caveat:

"Although the vast majority of EHR-related reports did not document actual harm to the patient, analysts believe that further study of EHR-related near misses and close calls is warranted as a proactive measure."

It occurs that if the title of the paper had been "The Role of the Electronic Health Record in Patient Safety Risk", the results might have been interpreted far differently:

In essence, from from June 2, 2004, through May 18, 2012 (the timeframe of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Reporting System or PA-PSRS database), from a dataset highly limited in its comprehensiveness as written in the earlier post, there were approximately 3,000 "events" where an error did occur that potentially put patients at risk.

That view - risk - was not the focus of the study.  Should it have been?

These "events" really should be called "risk events."

It is likely the tally of risk events, if the database were more comprehensive (due to better recognition of HIT-related problems, better reporting, etc.) would be much higher.  So would the reports of "harm and death" events as well.

That patient harm did not occur from the majority of "risk events" was through human intervention, which is to say, luck, in large part

Luck runs out, eventually.

I have personally saved a relative several times from computer-related "risk events" that could have caused harm if I were not there personally, and with my own medical knowledge, to have intervened.  My presence was happenstance in several instances; in fact a traffic jam or phone call could have caused me to have not been present.

What's worse, the report notes:

Analysts noted that EHR-related reports are increasing over time, which was to be expected as adoption of EHRs is growing in the United States overall.

In other words, with the current national frenzy to implement healthcare information technology, these "risk events" - and "harm and death events" - counts will increase.  My concern is that they will increase significantly.

I note that health IT is likely the only mission-critical technology that receives special accommodation regarding risk events.  "If the events didn't cause harm, then they're not that important an issue" seems to be the national attitude overall.

Imagine aircraft whose avionics and controls periodically malfunction, freeze, provide wrong results, etc., but most are caught by hyper-vigilant pilots so planes don't go careening out of control and crash.  Imagine nuclear plants where the same occurs, but due to hypervigilance the operators prevent a nuclear meltdown.

Then, imagine reports of these "risk events" - based on fragmentary reporting of pilots and nuclear plant operators reluctant to do so for fear of job retaliation - where the fact of their occurrence takes a back seat to the issue that the planes did not crash, or Three Mile Island or Chernobyl did not reoccur.

That, in fact, seems to be the culture of health IT.

I submit that the major focus that needs addressing in health IT is risk - not just confirmed body counts.

-- SS