Today's Bad Health IT Systems: More Dangerous Than Paper?

I believe in 2013 that they are.

(Definition of bad health IT is here:

I recently posted about two "glitches" in a major EHR seller's clinical systems, Siemens Healthcare, affecting safety-critical functions of medication reconciliation and medication ordering.

Considering these, plus the many "glitches" reported by the only EHR seller who does so via FDA's MAUDE database (see here:, and the others posted at this blog at query link:, the following issue needs serious consideration by policymakers.

Namely, the issue that enterprise electronic medical command-and-control systems, which today's "EHRs" in reality are, are on their face more risk-prone than the paper systems they are replacing.

The "glitches" reported above are clearly the tip of the iceberg due to industry norms of secrecy, the absence of most of the industry in reporting to FDA MAUDE or anywhere, and my limited sources of information.  It is likely the true level of "glitches" in live EHR/clinical IT installations is far, far higher  - conservatively, I believe, at least two orders of magnitude.

Workarounds to IT "glitches" such as recommended in the Siemens bulletins at the aforementioned posts cause hospital officials to have to  reliably get the notices to all users of the systems, including medical students, nurses, physicians and allied health professionals.

The workarounds also cause users to:

1)  have to deviate from habits of use acquired in training and active use of the systems in question;
2) remember, without fail, to deviate from habits of use acquired in training and active use of the systems in question, in effect giving them the responsibility of caring for sick patients and for "sick" information technology;
3) keep in mind any other extant workarounds that exist waiting for "fixes"; and
4) be constantly on guard for information storage failures.

In fact, the recent Siemens "glitches" and workarounds represent a clear danger to patient safety.  If these were more conventional medical devices, they'd be recalled.

See my Dec. 14, 2011 post "FDA Recalls Draeger Health IT Device Because This Product May Cause Serious Adverse Health Consequences, Including Death" ( and July 23, 2012 post "Health IT FDA Recall: Philips Xcelera Connect - Incomplete Information Arriving From Other Systems"( for examples where health IT defects similar to the Siemens issues were, in fact, recalled.

Further, with paper records or tangible images, a page or image can be lost, or it can be illegible.  In the case of lost, in any quality paper record keeping system the information stewards or others using the paper (e.g., office staff or ward clerks) will generally note the absence and act accordingly.  Further, illegible notes or orders will most often be recognized as illegible and result in attempted clarification or other corrective actions.

On the other hand, when electronic systems:

1)  lose modified information en masse as in the Siemens examples but keep the old, or
2)  when outright errors such as en masse truncation occur (as in the thousands of prescriptions whose long-acting suffixes were cut off at Lifespan in Rhode Island, see "Yet another health IT "glitch" affecting thousands" here:, or
3)  images are lost (see "Potential Image Loss in GE Centricity PACS" here: without warning-

- There are no "flags" that the obsolete, truncated or missing information is erroneous.

What remains is perfectly legible, perfectly convincing and perfectly deceiving.

Electronic healthcare information systems on their face create more risk than paper record systems.  Further, the problem with "bugs" and "glitches" will not go away with today's industry models of "hiring down" and lack of regulation.  Every new upgrade or patch is suspect for introducing new bugs.

Paper does not suffer these issues, unless disappearing ink is used to cross out the old and add new information ...

Not that I am advocating for a return to 100% paper, but certain critical functions probably are best left to paper.  Further, hundreds of billions of dollars can certainly buy:

1)  a lot of Health Information Management professionals to perform continuous QA of paper,
2)  a lot of document imaging systems to make the paper records available anywhere, anytime they are needed, and
3)  a lot of data entry personnel to relieve clinicians of clerical burdens so they may use their valuable experience more productively, as guest poster Howard Brody points out at
4)  a lot of sensible regulation of this industry's product quality.

-- SS

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