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The Problem With Running Medical Information Through A Digital Intermediary

In my last post I wrote about the communication difficulties caused by electronic medical records systems. The response on Twitter ranged from sentiments including everything from “right on, sister” to “greedy doctors are only complaining about EMRs because of their price tag.” The disconnect between policy wonk’s (and EMR vendor’s) belief in the transformative power of EMRs and exasperated clinician users of these products is jaw-dropping. Physicians are often labeled as obstinate dinosaurs, blocking progress, while policy wonks are considered by physicians to be living in an alternate reality where a mobile phone app could fix all that is wrong with the healthcare system.

Being on the dinosaur side, I thought I’d try a quick experiment/analogy to demonstrate that EMR dissatisfaction is not a mere cost artifact. To show what happens when a digital intermediary runs medical information through a translator, I selected a random paragraph about the epidemiology of aphasias from an article in Medscape. I copied and pasted it into Google translator and then ran it backwards and forwards a few times in different languages. In the end, the original paragraph (exhibit A) became the second paragraph (exhibit B):

Exhibit A:

“Not enough data are available to evaluate differences in the incidence and clinical features of aphasia in men and women. Some studies suggest a lower incidence of aphasia in women because they may have more bilaterality of language function. Differences may also exist in aphasia type, with more women than men developing Wernicke aphasia.”

Exhibit B:

“Prevalence and characteristics of men and women are expected to afasia is not enough information available. If afasia some studies, women work more, not less, because they show that the spoken language. There may be differences in the type of OST, women and men to develop more of a vernikke afasia, more.”

Although the B paragraph bears some resemblance to A, it is nearly impossible to determine its original meaning. This is similar to what happens to medical notes in most current EMRs (except the paragraph would be broken up with lab values and vital signs from the past week or two). If your job were to read hundreds of pages of B-type paragraphs all day, what do you think would happen? Would you enthusiastically adopt this new technology? Or would you give up reading the notes completely? Would you need to spend hours of your day finding “work-arounds” to correct the paragraphs?

And what would you say if the government mandated that you use this new technology or face decreased reimbursement for treating patients? What if you needed to demonstrate “meaningful use” or dependency and integration of the translator into your daily workflow in order to keep your business afloat? What if the scope of the technology were continually expanded to include more and more written information so that everything from lab orders to medication lists to hospital discharges, nursing summaries, and physical therapy notes, etc. were legally required to go through the translator first? And if you pointed out that this was not improving communication but rather introducing new errors, harming patients, and stealing countless hours from direct clinical care, you would be called “change resistant” or “lazy.”

And what if 68,000 new medical codes were added to the translator, so that you couldn’t advance from paragraph to paragraph without selecting the correct code for a disease (such as gout) without reviewing 150 sub-type versions of the code. And then what if you were denied payment for treating a patient with gout because you did not select the correct code within the 150 subtypes? And then multiply that problem by every condition of every patient you ever see.

Clearly, the cost of the EMR is the main reason why physicians are not willing to adopt them without complaint. Good riddance to the 50% of doctors who say they’re going to quit, retire, or reduce their work hours within the next three years. Without physicians to slow down the process of EMR adoption, we could really solve this healthcare crisis. Just add on a few mobile health apps and presto:  we will finally have the quality, affordable, healthcare that Americans deserve.

The App Gap: Why Baby Boomers Won’t Use Most Smart Phone Apps

Along with the invention of smart phones, an entire medical mobile application (app) industry has cropped up, promising patients enhanced connectivity, health data collection, and overall care quality at lower costs. Last year the FDA put a damper on the app industry’s quick-profit hopes by announcing that it intends to regulate certain medical apps as medical devices. In other words, if the app is used to connect with a medical device or to turn a smart phone into such a device (whether it can check your blood sugar, blood pressure, heart rhythm, etc. or suggest diagnoses), it must undergo safety and efficacy checks by the FDA before it can be brought to market. That process is likely to inflate app development costs exponentially, thus creating a chilling effect on the industry.

I actually think that FDA oversight is a good thing in this case, since it could protect patients from potentially misleading health information that they might use to make treatment or care decisions. But more importantly, I wonder if a lot of this fuss is moot for the largest, sickest, segment of the U.S. population?

For all the hype about robo-grannies, aging in place technologies, and how high tech solutions will reduce healthcare costs, the reality is that these hopes are unlikely to be achieved with the baby boomer generation. I believe that the generation that follows will be fully wired and interested in maximizing all that mobile health has to offer, but they’re not sick (yet) and they’re also not the proverbial “pig in the python” of today’s healthcare consumption.

I’m not saying that mobile health apps have no role in caring for America’s seniors – their physicians and care teams use tablets and smart phones, their kids do too, and a small percent of seniors may adopt these technologies, but I’m a realist when it comes to massive adoption by boomers themselves. Wireless connectivity, texting, personal digital health records, and asynchronous communication is just not in their DNA. Take away a teenager’s smart phone and he or she is likely to be completely flummoxed by reality. Now give that phone to a baby boomer and the flummoxing will be roughly equivalent, but centered upon the device. The teen can’t live without the constant phone/internet connection, and the senior is overwhelmed by the lack of human interface and unfamiliar menus.

What makes me so sure of my pronouncements? I just spent a month making house calls to almost 70 different Medicare Advantage members in rural parts of this country. And I can tell you that almost none of them used any sort of smart phone app to manage their health. These “odd creatures” actually enjoyed face-to-face human contact, they used their phones almost exclusively to talk to people (not surf the Internet), and they took hand-written notes when it was important for them to remember something. They even had paper calendars that they used to schedule their physician appointments and keep records of their medications and procedures. How “weird” is that?!

When I asked one of the seniors if she’d be interested in using a cell phone to check her blood pressure and have that automatically uploaded to her doctor’s office she replied,

“I’m too old to learn that stuff, dear. I’m lucky if I can find my slippers in the morning.”

The reality is that the average app user isn’t sick, and sick people don’t see a need for apps… yet.  So our challenge is to meet seniors where they are instead of trying to change their habits. House calls are the best way I know of to get a full appreciation for individual quirks, compliance challenges, and health practices. If we are really serious about reducing healthcare costs in our aging population, it may take some low-tech solutions. As un-sexy as that may be, it’s time that we put down the iPhone and practiced some good old-fashioned medicine.

The Transition From The Analog Physician To The Digital Physician

While most of us fail to see it, doctors are changing.  We’re changing as a result of the social and technological innovation.  In 2050 what we do and how we do it will be very different from what we did at the turn of the century.  We’re evolving from analog to digital. I think it’s important to consider the ‘digital physician’ as a concept worthy of attention.  The training and support of this emerging prototype has to meet its different needs and workflows. Perhaps the criteria by which we choose medical students should take into consideration the anticipated skill sets and demands of this next generation.  And we need hard information about the digital physician and her habits.

Here are some differences between the digital and analog physician:

The digital physician

  1. Information consumption is web-based
  2. Rarely uses a pen.  Care and correspondence is conducted through an EMR.
  3. Socially connected.  Comfortable with real time dialog at least on a peer-to-peer level.  Recognizes Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at 33 Charts*

Could Our Healthcare System Function Without Power In The Digital Age?

* Bzzzzzaaaaapp *

Suddenly, the light went out. There was complete and utter darkness. Then, about 3 seconds later, the lights returned. My computer with its flat screen poised before me, remained dark. I hesitated a moment, then pushed the power button. Within a few more moments, the computer restarted. All seemed intact.

But what if it wasn’t?

Today with our myriad of computer systems, electronic medical records, e-mail messages, paging systems, digital xray machines, blood chemistry analyzers, automated blood pressure cuffs, etc., etc., etc., what would happen if we had no power or functional electronic medical record, just for a week?

Could our health system function?

We have entered the era when our medical students and residents have never entered a written order and “flagged it.” Our unit secretaries wouldn’t have a clue how to take off an order from a “flagged” chart. How would we order a stat portable chest xray without a computer? And what about our written notes. Would they include the date and time in the lefthand column, or would that be forgotten in our hurry to write our manual progress notes? Would our digital phone systems work? How about our pagers? Doctors can no longer find manual blood pressure cuffs on our wards since hospitals have moved to automated blood pressure cuffs that upload their readings into the electronic medical record automatically.  Have our nurses and medical assistants lost the art of taking a manual blood pressure? Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Dr. Wes*

What Americans Can Learn From England’s Experience With Electronic Medical Records

The development and use of an electronic medical record is extremely important for communication, rapid diagnosis and clinical decision making, increasing efficiency in working up patients, decreasing the cost of duplication of testing and time delays in medical care and treatment.

There are many other advantages of using a functional electronic medical records. A person could be anywhere in the world and have his medical information immediately available. The results of all testing should immediately be communicated to the treating physician. All imaging studies should be digital.

Patients’ physicians could immediately read and use them for their clinical decision making.

These are only a few of the advantages of the electronic medical record. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Repairing the Healthcare System*

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