Novice EHR Development is now unethical

The original Hipoocratic Oath states:

I will not use the knife, not even on sufferers from stone, but will withdraw in favor of such men as are engaged in this work.

One modern version reads:

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.

The idea here is that a doctor needs to recognize when another practitioner has a skill that they do not, and that they must refrain from “practice” when another person has demonstrable expertise in that area of practice.

It is now 2013. It is time for doctors to stop “writing their own EHR” from scratch. They need to bow out of this in favor of people who have developed expertise in the area.

I just found out about another doctor who has decided to write his own EHR, because he has not been able to find one that supports his new direct pay business model adequately. In the distant past I encountered a doctor who believed that his “Microsoft Word Templates” qualified as an EHR system. This is a letter to any doctor who feels like they are comfortable starting from-scratch software development for an EHR in 2013 or later.

You might believe yourself to be an EHR expert.

Are you sure about that? Are you sure that you are not just an EHR expert user?

This difference is not unlike your relationship with your favorite thoracic surgeon. Or for that matter, your relationship with the person who built your car. The fact that you are capable of expertly evaluating and using EHR products does not mean you are qualified to build one. Just like the fact that you are qualified to treat a patient who has recently had heart surgery or to discern when a patient might need heart surgery does not make you qualified to perform that heart surgery. Similarly, the fact that you can drive, or even repair your automobile, does not provide you with the expertise you need to build a car from scratch.

The ethical situation that you are putting yourself in by developing your own EHR is fairly tenuous. Performing heart surgery without being a heart surgeon, building and driving your own car without being an automotive engineer and a doctor coding their own EHR system from scratch all have the same fundamental problem: You might be smart enough to pull it off, but if you don’t you can really mess up another person’s life. Make no mistake, you can kill someone with a shoddy EHR just as easily as by performing medical procedures that you are not qualified for or by driving a car that is not road-safe.

It is not that heart surgeons, automotive engineers and EHR developers are not going to kill people with faulty performance. All experts are fallible. But they will kill far fewer people than you would, performing outside your expertise.

I can understand your feelings of frustration. You likely have totally different goals in mind than the average third-party-payer oriented EHR system has. You are right to be frustrated with the shackles that those systems have placed on you. But you are very wrong to presume that it is ethical for you to do “amateur hour” on your own.

You presume that because you can see the problems with EHR developer performance, that this makes you qualified to build a better EHR. You are utterly and unequivocally wrong about this. Sometimes, EHRs have features that are designed for clinical CYA, basically over-documentation for the sake of unethical defensive medicine. Sometimes EHR systems are designed to be glorified practice management systems, designed mostly to ensure that doctors maximize their paycheck at the expense of patient care. Sometimes EHR design decisions have no rational behind them at all… they are frequently the result of original design whims that are hard to correct in subsequent editions of an EHR product.

But sometimes a feature that frustrates you is precisely what makes that EHR safe for patients. I can promise you that you cannot tell the difference between flaws and features without looking carefully at both the internals of the EHR system and all of the clinical workflows it is exercised in. What you think of as a flaw might be a software crumple zone.

Happily, you get to have your cake and eat it too. There are several Open Source EHR systems that are already meaningful use certified. You can use these Open Source EHR systems for nothing, and for very little money you can even get Meaningful Use credit for using these systems. Given this, you have no excuse to continue to develop an new EHR.

Open Source gives you the right to change what you need to, in order to get the functionality that you want.. and more importantly can connect you with experienced health IT developers, who can serve as a gut check for you as you consider how to implement the features that you need for whatever clinical variation you are interested in implementing.

This is very like the person who orders a “kit car” to build in their garage. They get to -feel- like they are building the car, and indeed they get lots of options normal car owners do not. But in the end, they are able to build a car safely because someone else, someone with specific expertise, has made sure that design of the kit car is fundamentally sound.  You can always shoot yourself in the foot with kit cars and Open Source.. but you have the power you need without being in over your head.

The development of mature EHR systems has been very similar to the development of surgical methods. Primitive EHR systems and primitive surgical procedures were both deadly. In both cases, medical science has already sacrificed thousands of people to the “cause” of learning how to do these things right. In 1850, it would have been entirely appropriate for any doctor to “dabble” with creating their own surgical methods. Even as recently as 2000, it would have been appropriate for you to “dabble” with the creation of your own EHR system. (eMDs was started by a doctor dabbling in 1996. eClinicalWorks was started in a similar fashion in 1999). But those days are over.

A doctor developing a new EHR system from scratch, by themselves, without extensive Health IT programming experience is in over their head. If they continue to develop an EHR, even after being warned of the dangers here, then this is hubris.

Ask yourself: Are you absolutely sure that this action is not a fundamental violation of the oath that you took when you became a doctor?

I want to be clear, I have worked on or around the development of EHR systems for more than a decade, and I would not presume to write a new EHR system without a team of programmers and years of funding. Its not that I think that “a doctor” is not qualified to undertake this task. No single person is.

I wrote a book designed to ensure that novice programmers had basic training in complex Health IT principles. Programmers can be guilty of hubris too, and I consistently advocate for a “clinical pair programming” approach. David Uhlman (my co-author) and I wrote the book because too many people assume that Health IT is easy, and they wonder why things in the industry are so “primitive”. The book is intended to teach clinicians and programmers alike humility when approaching clinical information systems, both as users and as developers. FSM knows that I have been dangerously arrogant regarding clinical information systems, and I have and will make serious mistakes. But there comes a point where making the same mistakes that others have made, and written about, becomes unethical. I think we have reached this point with EHR systems.

Some people took offense that I should link to my own book at the end of this article, so instead I have included some of the reference materials that I use frequently. This is a good sampling of the kind of context that really should be required of any modern Health IT developer.

Begin with Information and Medicine by Marsden S Blois. Then move on to Principles of Health Interoperability HL7 and SNOMED by Tim Benson and The CDA Book by Keith Boone. Finally, you should read about what can go wrong in Health IT by studying EHR generated errors with Clinical Information Systems, Overcoming Adverse Consequences by Dean E Sittig and Joan S. Ash.

These are the books that I refer to when I get stuck on something. I wish I could just hold it all in my head, and in many ways my book is just the cliff notes I need for myself. If you know of other books that should be on the “Health IT required reading list” please leave them in the comments…

-FT

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