Doctors are being driven daffy by electronic health records, or EHRs.
That’s the takeaway from a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association. Seven in 10 Rhode Island doctors surveyed who used electronic health records said that the technology stressed them out. Those who reported health information technology-related stress were anywhere from 1.9 to 2.8 times as likely to burn out. In Pennsylvania, 45 percent of physicians report feeling burned out, according to a separate survey from Medscape.
They can thank the federal government for these professional headaches. A decade ago, the Obama administration pushed doctors to adopt electronic records in hopes they’d speed up the provision of care and improve health outcomes. Ten years on, these mandates have delivered much the opposite.
The federal mandate that doctors adopt electronic health records was included as part of the American Recovery and Investment Act — more colloquially known as the 2009 stimulus package.
The feds yielded a variety of carrots and sticks. Doctors that demonstrated meaningful use of the technology were awarded part of $17 billion in incentives. Doctors who didn't risked having their payments from Medicare and Medicaid slashed.
President Obama boasted that the program would “cut waste, eliminate red tape, and reduce the need to repeat expensive medical tests.” The idea was that a mass upgrade of the nation’s health IT would facilitate the sharing of information among physicians and hospitals — and ultimately lead to more accurate diagnoses and more effective and efficient treatment.
The information technology revolution had transformed so many other parts of the American economy. Why couldn't it do the same for health care?
The government's carrots and sticks worked. From 2009 to 2015, the share of hospitals using a basic electronic health records system increased from 12 percent to 84 percent.
They may have adopted electronic records. But that doesn’t mean the technology works — or that it’s improving patient care.
The programs on the market are often clunky, time-consuming, and insensitive to the complexities of modern medicine. Physicians, who already face suffocating administrative burdens, are logging ever-increasing amounts of data that have little clinical relevance. Time with patients is disrupted by an endless flood of alerts and messages.
Two-thirds of doctors say electronic records degrade their patient interactions, according to a survey from the Physicians Foundation. More than half of physicians report that the records reduce efficiency; more than a third say they diminish the quality of care.
Screen time has replaced face time. Only one-fourth of the average doctor's day is spent face-to-face with patients. Half is devoted to electronic health records and other administrative tasks, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Our country can ill afford to have physicians spending three-quarters of their time on things besides patient care. Our population will require more and more care as it ages. That’s among the reasons the Association of American Medical Colleges projects that the United States will be short as many as 120,000 doctors by 2030.
The shortage could grow even worse if doctors react to the burdens federal pressures have foisted upon them by leaving the profession. The Physicians Foundation found that roughly eight in 10 doctors had reported feelings of burnout. Nearly half of doctors are looking to change career paths.
Rolling back the federal electronic health records mandate won’t stop doctors and hospitals from incorporating health information technology into their practices and facilities. Instead, it will allow them — not the government — to decide how to balance patient care and technology use. In theory, clinicians will use technology to improve their ability to deliver high-quality patient care — rather than using technology simply to satisfy the government.
Doctors choose their profession because they want to heal people, not fill out paperwork. It’s time for the government to get out of the way and let physicians actually practice medicine.