Ellmers Calls on Sebelius to Address Health IT Safety Concerns: A Responsible Voice in Government on Health IT and HIT Safety


The following press release is very welcome, and speaks for itself.  There is a responsible voice in the government wilderness.  It is perhaps no surprise it comes from a Congresswoman who is also a registered nurse:

Ellmers Calls on Sebelius to Address Health IT Safety Concerns

Safety Risks and Health IT-Related Errors Cited in IOM Recommendations

WASHINGTON – House Small Business Subcommittee on Healthcare and Technology Chairwoman Renee Ellmers (R-NC) today sent a letter to Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), inquiring about whether the Department has adopted the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) recommendations for improving the safety of health information technology (IT).
The report, issued in November, recommended several steps to be taken by HHS and called for greater oversight by the public and private sectors. The Secretary was called upon by the IOM to issue a plan within 12 months to minimize patient safety risks associated with health IT and report annually on the progress being made.  The report further recommended that the plan should include a schedule for working with the private sector to assess the impact of health IT on patient safety, and recommended several other steps to help improve the safety of health IT.

Specifically, Chairwoman Ellmers has requested a copy of the Secretary’s plan to minimize patient safety risks, a description of health IT-related errors that have resulted in patient risks, injuries and deaths, and the status of the development of a mechanism for health IT vendors and users to report health IT-related deaths.  She said that because health IT has the promise to improve health care delivery for patients, physicians and other medical professionals, she remains eager to work with the Secretary to ensure that health IT is safe, effective and affordable.

In an August 11, 2011 letter to Secretary Sebelius, Chairwoman Ellmers said that a modern, well-equipped office is critical to the practice of medicine, and asked the Secretary to undertake a study of health IT’s adoption, benefits and cost effectiveness, including medical error rates.

On June 2, 2011, Chairwoman Ellmers’ Subcommittee held a hearing on the barriers to health IT that are encountered by physicians and other health professionals in small and solo practices.   At the hearing, physicians expressed strong concerns about the cost of purchasing and maintaining health IT systems, as well as the staff training and downtime necessary to implement such a system.  Chairwoman Ellmers noted health IT’s great potential to improve health care delivery, decrease medical errors, increase clinical and administrative efficiency and reduce paperwork.

For more than twenty-one years before being elected to Congress, Chairwoman Ellmers served as a registered nurse, focusing on surgical care as Clinical Director of the Trinity Wound Care Center and later helping to manage the family's small medical practice with her husband, Dr. Brent Ellmers, a licensed surgeon. As a registered nurse and the wife of a surgeon, Ellmers understands that a modern, efficient and well-equipped office is critical to the practice of medicine.    

This voice of sanity is quite welcome.  I've spoken with Rep. Ellmers' office, pointing them to my Drexel Univ. writings and materials and recommending Sebelius' reply be gone over with a fine-toothed comb, from the perspective of health IT realities, not merely from the perspective of the Ddulite's good intentions.  (I also introduced her staffer to the concept of the Ddulite, the HIT hyper-enthusiast who ignores all downsides and ethical concerns.)

I also pointed out the ethical lapse in IOM's position of "wait and see" while HIT is pushed nationally under penalty of law, at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, when their own report (along with reports from FDA here, JC here and others) admits they don't know the magnitude of benefits, risks and harms:

... While some studies suggest improvements in patient safety can be made, others have found no effect. Instances of health IT–associated harm have been reported. However, little published evidence could be found quantifying the magnitude of the risk.

Several reasons health IT–related safety data are lacking include the absence of measures and a central repository (or linkages among decentralized repositories) to collect, analyze, and act on information related to safety of this technology. Another impediment to gathering safety data is contractual barriers (e.g., nondisclosure, confidentiality clauses) that can prevent users from sharing information about health IT–related adverse events. These barriers limit users’ abilities to share knowledge of risk-prone user interfaces, for instance through screenshots and descriptions of potentially unsafe processes. In addition, some vendors include language in their sales contracts and escape responsibility for errors or defects in their software (i.e., “hold harmless clauses”). The committee believes these types of contractual restrictions limit transparency, which significantly contributes to the gaps in knowledge of health IT–related patient safety risks. These barriers to generating evidence pose unacceptable risks to safety.
[IOM (Institute of Medicine). 2012. Health IT and Patient Safety: Building Safer Systems for Better Care (PDF). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, pg. S-2.]

As I wrote in my Nov. 2011 post "IOM Report - 'Health IT and Patient Safety: Building Safer Systems for Better Care' - Nix the FDA; Create a New Toothless Agency", the IOM's response to their own study was reckless and unethical (at best):

... The panel also recommends that the HHS secretary publicly report on the progress of health IT safety each year, beginning in 2012. If the secretary determines at any time that adequate safety progress has not been made, only then should the FDA take the regulatory lead and be given the resources to do so, the report recommends, adding that the agency should be developing a framework now to be prepared.

In the meantime, during each year of "watching for safety progress", innumerable patients are exposed to HIT's hazards and costs.  Pharma and other medical device industries are afforded no such special accommodation.

-- SS
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