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Comment: New computer system a detriment to health care

One health record. Making care delivery easier for health-care providers. Safer health care.
iHealth computer terminal carts - photo
IHealth computer terminal carts

One health record. Making care delivery easier for health-care providers. Safer health care. These are the claims Island Health has made publicly for its new electronic health-record system iHealth, introduced initially at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital in March and intended to roll out across Vancouver Island in the coming months.

These are goals physicians share — many of whom enthusiastically use electronic records in their clinics. Despite “bumps in the road,” Island Health claims the implementation of the system is going well.

But these claims are untrue. iHealth does not provide a single health record: It offers no less disjointed and poorly accessible a collection of patient information in differing programs and sites than the previous system.

The system is cumbersome, inefficient, not intuitive — and not simply because it is a new system, but because of its very nature. It’s like trying to make a DOS-based computer work like an Apple or Windows-based system: You can perform many of the same functions, but it is slow, takes multiple steps and is inefficient.

Even the youngest generation, who have grown up with computers, and those with computing science degrees can’t make it work effectively.

The system’s ordering function is faulty and requires multiple separate steps and choices to order a simple medication: A processing issue safety experts know is highly likely to cause error.

And the system sometimes makes default changes in medication orders without the knowledge of the ordering physician. Single orders for medications disappear from the record, so that duplicate orders are initiated by unknowing doctors.

The consequence of these problems is that hospital-based care delivery is slower, more inefficient, more prone to error. Health-care providers are found interacting with their mobile computer monitors in already overcrowded hallways rather than providing direct patient care.

Nurses and doctors have less of a holistic appreciation of their patients and their illnesses because of the disjointed complexity of the electronic record rather than the simple navigability of the previous paper record and charting.

And communication with the computer system has supplanted direct discussion between health-care team members: Like trying to manage complex illnesses through text messages.

Health-care delivery is slower, so surgical operations are cancelled or delayed and patients leave the emergency department without being assessed; patients are not seen in a timely fashion or at all by specialists; medication errors are regular, so patients are medicated inappropriately or even overdosed; and some of our most experienced and valued health-care providers opt for early retirement or leave rather than continue the frustration and moral distress that this system has generated.

And the effect of iHealth is not restricted to the hospital, as some specialists have reduced their outpatient service because of the increased workload iHealth has caused.

In short, health care is not easier or better. The quality of care is worse and access is reduced. Improvements can be made and have been, but the system is fundamentally flawed. The impact on work efficiency and quality will never return to previous levels — a fact even the Island Health iHealth “champions” acknowledge.

Worse, iHealth is unsafe and dangerous. Medicine strives to be evidence-based, but there’s no evidence electronic record systems improve quality of care, and plenty of evidence they do the opposite — particularly this one.

Doctors have expressed their concerns to Island Health. Rather than suspending the system, the health authority’s response has been simply to delay its rollout beyond Nanaimo. It’s OK to let our community suffer while they tinker.

Dr. Brendan Carr, the CEO of Island Health, tells us he’ll “do whatever it takes to make this work,” even while continuing to risk worsening quality of care and expending more of our taxpayer dollars — $200 million so far, a fraction of which applied to delivery of health-care services could provide inordinately better health-care outcomes than any electronic record can do.

The medical community has finally taken matters into our own hands in the interests of patient safety, quality of care and access. A number of departments are refusing to continue using the system and instead returning to the previous one.

Why does Island Health not withdraw this system? In sum, they’ve spent a lot of taxpayers’ dollars on iHealth, a product of Cerner, which has been sued by hospital systems in the United States.

And as with many such systems, the objective has not been better patient care, but has been more Orwellian: Improved administrative data and control — no wonder Island Health is loath to give it up.

Well, Dr. Carr, the patient should be paramount. I and my family and my community are not expendable. No electronic record system should be introduced that will not explicitly improve health care, patient safety and access.

Any deterioration in health care is not an acceptable outcome. Suspend the iHealth experiment. Stop wasting taxpayer dollars. Sue for our money back for having been sold a lemon (as other jurisdictions have done).

Spend our tax dollars on services, infrastructure and equipment that will improve health care, not make it worse.

Dr. Winston Smith is the pseudonym for a doctor in Nanaimo.

> Nanaimo doctors say electronic health record system is unsafe, should be shut down