Monday, 31 August 2015

The Digital Doctor

I’ve just finished reading The DigitalDoctor by Robert Wachter. It’s published this year, and gives great insight into the US developments in electronic health records, particularly over the past few years: Meaningful Use and the rise of EPIC. The book manages to steer a great course between being personal (about Wachter’s career and the experiences of people around him) and drawing out general themes, albeit from a US perspective. I’d love to see an equivalent book about the UK, but suspect there would be no-one qualified to write it.

The book is simultaneously fantastic and slightly frustrating. I'll deal with the frustrating first: although Wachter claims that a lot of the book is about usability (and indeed there are engaging and powerful examples of poor usability that have resulted in untoward incidents), he seems unaware that there’s an entire discipline devoted to understanding human factors and usability, and that people with that expertise could contribute to the debate: my frustration is not with Wachter, but with the fact that human factors is apparently still so invisible, and there still seems to be an assumption that the only qualification that is needed to be an expert in human factors is to be a human.

The core example (the overdose of a teenage patient with 38.5 times the intended dose of a common antibiotic) is told compellingly from the perspectives of several of the protagonists:

    poor interface design leads to the doctor specifying the dose in mg, but the system defaulting to mg/kg and therefore multiplying the intended dose by the weight of the patient;

    the system issues so many indistinguishable alerts (most very minor) that the staff become habituated to cancelling them without much thought – and one of the reasons for so many alerts is the EHR supplier covering themselves against liability for error;

    the pharmacist who checked the order was overloaded and multitasking, using an overly complicated interface, and trusted the doctor;

    the robot that issued the medication had no ‘common sense’ and did not query the order;

    the nurse who administered the medication was new and didn’t have anyone more senior to quickly check the prescription with, so assumed that all the earlier checks would have caught any error, so the order must be correct;

    the patient was expecting a lot of medication, so didn’t query how much “a lot” ought to be.
This is about design and culture. There is surprisingly little about safer design from the outset (it’s hardly as if “alert fatigue” is a new phenomenon, or as if the user interface design and confusability of units is surprising or new): while those involved in deploying new technology in healthcare should be able to learn from their own mistakes, there’s surely also room for learning from the mistakes (and the expertise!) of others.

The book covers a lot of other territory: from the potential for big data analytics to transform healthcare to the changing role of the patient (and the evolving clinician–patient relationship) and the cultural context within which all the changes are taking place. I hope that Wachter’s concluding optimism is well founded. It’s going to be a long, hard road from here to there that will require a significant cultural shift in healthcare, and across society. This book really brought home to me some of the limitations of “user centred design” in a world that is trying to achieve such transformational change in such a short period of time, with everyone having to just muddle through. This book should be read by everyone involved in the procurement and deployment of new electronic health record systems, and by their patients too... and of course by healthcare policy makers: we can all learn from the successes and struggles of the US health system.

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