Five things to know about the electronic health records mess

The U.S. government claimed that ditching paper medical charts for electronic records would make health care better, safer and cheaper. Ten years and $36 billion later, the digital revolution has gone awry.

A KHN and Fortune investigation found:

Patient harm: Electronic health records have created a host of risks to patient safety. Alarming reports of deaths, serious injuries and near misses — thousands of them — tied to software glitches, user errors or other system flaws have piled up for years in government and private repositories. Yet no central database exists to compile and study these incidents to improve safety.

Signs of fraud: Federal officials say the software can be misused to overcharge, a practice known as "upcoding." Some doctors and health systems are alleged to have overstated their use of the new technology, a potentially enormous fraud against Medicare and Medicaid likely to take years to unravel. Two software makers have paid a total of more than $200 million to settle fraud allegations.

Gaps in interoperability: Proponents of electronic health records expected a seamless system so patients could share computerized medical histories in a flash with doctors and hospitals anywhere in the country. That has yet to materialize, largely because officials allowed hundreds of competing firms to sell medical records software unable to exchange information.

Doctor burnout: Many doctors say they spend half their day or more clicking pulldown menus and typing rather than interacting with patients. An emergency room doctor can be saddled with making up to 4,000 mouse clicks per shift. This has fueled concerns about doctor burnout, which in January the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Massachusetts Medical Society called a "public health crisis."

Web of secrets: Entrenched policies continue to keep software failures out of public view. Vendors of electronic health records have imposed contractual "gag clauses" that discourage buyers from speaking out about safety issues and disastrous software installations — and some hospitals fight to withhold records from injured patients or their families.

For an in-depth examination of electronic health records, read “Death By 1,000 Clicks: Where Electronic Health Records Went Wrong.”

Kaiser Health NewsThis article was reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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