Electronic health records (EHRs) have received a lot of attention since the Obama administration committed $19 billion in stimulus funds earlier this year to encourage hospitals and health care facilities to digitize patient data and make better use of information technology. The healthcare industry as a whole, however, has been slow to adopt information technology and integrate computer systems, raising the question of whether the push to digitize will result in information that empowers doctors to make better-informed decisions or a morass of disconnected data.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) knows firsthand how difficult it is to achieve the former, and how easily an EHR plan can fall into the latter. UPMC has spent five years and more than $1 billion on information technology systems to get ahead of the EHR issue. While that is more than five times as much as recent estimates say it should cost a hospital system, UPMC is a mammoth network consisting of 20 hospitals as well as 400 doctors' offices, outpatient sites and long-term care facilities employing about 50,000 people.

UPMC's early attempts to create a universal EHR system, such as its ambulatory electronic medical records rolled out between 2000 and 2005, were met with resistance as doctors, staff and other users either avoided using the new technology altogether or clung to individual, disconnected software and systems that UPMC's IT department had implemented over the years.

On the mend
Although UPMC began digitizing some of its records in 1996, the turning point in its efforts came in 2004 with the rollout of its eRecord system across the entire health care network. eRecord now contains more than 3.6 million electronic patient records, including images and CT scans, clinical laboratory information, radiology data, and a picture archival and communication system that digitizes images and makes them available on PCs. The EHR system has 29,000 users, including more than 5,000 physicians employed by or affiliated with UPMC.

If UPMC makes EHR systems look easy, don't be fooled, cautions UPMC chief medical information officer Dan Martich, who says the health care network's IT systems require a "huge, ongoing effort" to ensure that those systems can communicate with one another. One of the main reasons is that UPMC, like many other health care organizations, uses a number of different vendors for its medical and IT systems, leaving the integration largely up to the IT staff.

Since doctors typically do not want to change the way they work for the sake of a computer system, the success of an EHR program is dictated not only by the presence of the technology but also by how well the doctors are trained on, and use, the technology. Physicians need to see the benefits of using EHR systems both persistently and consistently, says Louis Baverso, chief information officer at UPMC's Magee-Women's Hospital. But these benefits might not be obvious at first, he says, adding, "What doctors see in the beginning is that they're losing their ability to work with paper documents, which has been so valuable to them up until now."

Opportunities and costs
Given the lack of EHR adoption throughout the health care world, there are a lot of opportunities to get this right (or wrong). Less than 10 percent of U.S. hospitals have adopted electronic medical records even in the most basic way, according to a study authored by Ashish Jha, associate professor of health policy and management at Harvard School of Public Health, and published in the April 16 New England Journal of Medicine. Only 1.5 percent have adopted a comprehensive system of electronic records that includes physicians' notes and orders and decision support systems that alert doctors of potential drug interactions or other problems that might result from their intended orders.

Cost is the primary factor stalling EHR systems, followed by resistance from physicians unwilling to adopt new technologies and a lack of staff with adequate IT expertise, according to Jha. He indicated that a hospital could spend from $20 million to $200 million to implement an electronic record system over several years, depending on the size of the hospital. A typical doctor's office would cost an estimated $50,000 to outfit with an EHR system.

The upside of EHR systems is more difficult to quantify. Although some estimates say that hospitals and doctor's offices could save as much as $100 million annually by moving to EHRs, the mere act of implementing the technology guarantees neither cost savings nor improvements in care, Jha said during a Harvard School of Public Health community forum on September 17. Another Harvard study of hospital computerization likewise determined that cutting costs and improving care through health IT as it exists today is "wishful thinking". This study was led by David Himmelstein, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and former director of clinical computing at Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts, and published in the November issue of the American Journal of Medicine (pdf).

The cost of getting it wrong
The difference between the projected cost savings and the reality of the situation stems from the fact that the EHR technologies implemented to date have not been designed to save money or improve patient care, says Leonard D'Avolio, associate center director of Biomedical Informatics at the Massachusetts Veterans Epidemiology Research and Information Center (MAVERIC), located at the VA Boston Healthcare System center in Jamaica Plain. Instead, EHRs are used to document individual patients' conditions, pass this information among clinicians treating those patients, justify financial reimbursement and serve as the legal records of events.

This is because, if a health care facility has $1 million to spend, its managers are more likely to spend it on an expensive piece of lab equipment than on information technology, D'Avolio says, adding that the investment on lab equipment can be made up by charging patients access to it as a billable service. This is not the case for IT. Also, computers and networks used throughout hospitals and health care facilities are disconnected and often manufactured by different vendors without a standardized way of communicating. "Medical data is difficult to standardize because caring for patients is a complex process," he says. "We need to find some way of reaching across not just departments but entire hospitals. If you can't measure something, you can't improve it, and without access to this data, you can't measure it."

To qualify for a piece of the $19 billion being offered through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), healthcare facilities will have to justify the significance of their IT investments to ensure they are "meaningful users" of EHRs. The Department of Health and Human Services has yet to define what it considers meaningful use (this is on the HHS agenda for December).

Aggregating info to create knowledge
Ideally, in addition to providing doctors with basic information about their patients, databases of vital signs, images, laboratory values, medications, diseases, interventions, and patient demographic information could be mined for new knowledge, D'Avolio says. "With just a few of these databases networked together, the power to improve health care increases exponentially," D'Avolio suggested in the September 9 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). "All that is missing is the collective realization that better health care requires access to better information—not automation of the status quo." Down the road, the addition of genomic information, environmental factors and family history to these databases will enable clinicians to begin to realize the potential of personalized medicine, he added.

"Much of the information contained in electronic records is formatted as unstructured free text—useful for the essential individual communication but unsuitable for detecting quantifiable trends," such as outbreaks of infections, D'Avolio wrote in JAMA.

Data analysis experiments performed by Ben Shneiderman, a University of Maryland computer science professor and founder of the school's Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory (HCIL), and his colleagues indicate what the future holds if EHR systems are improved and implemented. "If there's enough information available, and it's able to be searched effectively, a doctor could essentially be running a virtual clinical trial for each patient by studying existing patient data," he says. "The real power of [EHRs] comes not from looking at just one patient but rather being able to analyze similar information across millions of people."

And although there is criticism that electronic medical records today are little more than digitized versions of paper forms, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Director Patrick Gallagher is optimistic that the ARRA money, combined with the $80 million in grants HHS is offering to train health IT workers, will push EHR adoption in the right direction. "The way I've been thinking about it, it simply would not have risen to the level of priority it has if it was simply about digitizing records in a doctor's office," says Gallagher, who took over as NIST director in early November. "I don't think we'd be investing as much as we're investing. This is about using technology to bring health care information together to reduce medical error, reduce the need for testing, put information in front of patients, and put information in front of researchers."