EHR Innovation Gap Threatens Healthcare Progress

EHRs remain stuck in the pre-Internet age and dominated by entrenched vendors, according to recent New England Journal of Medicine commentary.

Nicole Lewis, Contributor

June 19, 2012

5 Min Read

8 Health Information Exchanges Lead The Way

8 Health Information Exchanges Lead The Way

8 Health Information Exchanges Lead The Way (click image for larger for slideshow)

Electronic health records suffer from a lack of innovation that thwarts physicians' attempts to advance healthcare processes and workflow. Unlike word-processing programs, search engines, social networks, and mobile phones and apps, EHRs are stuck in the pre-Internet world where EHR vendors not only control the data, but also resist improvements to functionality while reaping huge financial rewards, concludes a commentary that appears in the June 14 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Penned by Kenneth Mandl and Isaac Kohane, both professors at Harvard Medical School, "Escaping the EHR Trap – The Future of Health IT", says EHR vendors insist that the healthcare industry is so unique that data collection, the sharing of health information, and many other tasks associated with healthcare workflow require a highly specialized set of tools. This myth, the authors say, has led to EHR vendors declaring that only they can develop health IT to meet the current demands of the healthcare system--a notion with which the authors sharply disagree.

"We believe that EHR vendors propagate the myth that health IT is qualitatively different from industrial and consumer products in order to protect their prices and market share and block new entrants," the article states.

In a joint interview with both authors, Kohane further explained that: "Leading companies like EPIC will claim that it's unsafe for health IT to be done outside their monolithic system and that their monolithic system is actually enabling patient safety and the correct conduct of healthcare process."

Kohane, who is also the director of the Children's Hospital Informatics Program, Boston, Mass., told InformationWeek Healthcare that we need EHRs because they provide core features that are unique to medicine, including particular medical workflows, specific medical decision support functionality, and distinct medical vocabularies. But Kohane wants the technology to be much more generic than specialized.

[Is it time to re-engineer your Clinical Decision Support system? See 10 Innovative Clinical Decision Support Programs.]

The authors lament that with more than 700 vendors and about 1,750 distinct certified EHR products, their lack of interoperability hasn't helped doctors or patients.

"Commercial EHRs evolved from practice-management (i.e., billing) systems, and in response to the patient safety movement, vendors tacked on documentation modules and order entry for physicians. Since each EHR product has been built as an isolated silo, the market for any good innovation is fragmented," the article said.

As the healthcare system sets up accountable care organizations (ACOs) that tie reimbursements to performance metrics and health information exchanges that require greater interoperability between organizations and their various EHR systems, the need for innovation becomes critical.

With this in mind, Mandl emphasized the need for communication and coordination across healthcare providers; but EHRs only provide a document repository that doesn't really serve that purpose.

"EHRs are used for communication; people can perhaps go in and read the same documents that their colleagues have written, but it's not designed to provide that kind of collaborative tool set. EHRs weren't really designed to create a rich data repository to support what the Institute of Medicine calls a learning health system," Mandl observed.

According to Mandl, who is also director of the Intelligent Health Laboratory at the Children's Hospital Informatics Program in Boston Mass., EHRs don't generally export their data in a usable fashion and don't possess search capabilities that allow doctors, for example, to enter a keyword to pull up a group of patients who are all on a particular medication.

During the interview, both Kohane and Mandl agreed that EHRs would benefit immediately by creating open APIs--both APIs to export the data and APIs to run applications that allow external product integration with the EHR.

To give current EHRs added functionality, the article identifies many current technologies that EHRs can benefit from, and states that: "Only a small subset of loosely coupled information technologies need to be highly specific to health care. Many components can be generic."

These generic components include:

-- Local or cloud-based storage similar to that provided by EMC and Amazon. Healthcare providers can adapt such storage if it's accompanied by strong, compliant privacy policies.

-- Communications tools such as the Direct Project, which promotes a secure communications system for healthcare based on SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol), the decades-old store-and-forward e-mail standard. The Direct Project illustrates how highly effective general technologies can be adapted to healthcare in an open, standard way that also provides integration between systems.

-- Documentation tools such as text-processing and other software that support task-oriented group processes in multiple industries. These tools easily outperform EHR systems. Many EHR text processors don't even offer spell checking. Similarly other industries use highly adapted project-management software to manage complex processes, as well as advanced tools such as Teambox, Basecamp, and Huddle to record extended interactions.

EHRs could also benefit from tools that provide loading, graphing, mapping, and analyzing data. There are free and open source tools like Google Maps and the R statistical package as well as ArcGIS and SAS, which are proprietary but have public programming interfaces for integration into the workflow of various users across disciplines.

The commentary concludes by asserting that: "Health IT vendors should adapt modern technologies wherever possible. Clinicians choosing products in order to participate in the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Programs should not be held hostage to EHRs that reduce their efficiency and strangle innovation."

Get the new, all-digital Healthcare CIO 25 issue of InformationWeek Healthcare. It's our second annual honor roll of the health IT leaders driving healthcare's transformation. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights