Are EMRs "magical thinking" or the real thing?

November 13, 2009 by MassDevice

A Kaiser Permanente executive warns of over-hyping the impact electronic medical records will have on the healthcare system.

Are EMRs "magical thinking" or the real thing?

Most technological breakthroughs come with a good dose of hyperbole. Exhibit A: The Apple Newton, which was going to revolutionize hand held computing. Exhibit B: Satellite radio, which was going to kill broadcast radio; and Exhibit C: The Segway, which was going to change transportation.

Setting aside the fact that most hyped technologies fail to make the dent their makers promise, a technology flop isn't always skin-deep. After all, out of the Newton (one of Apple's biggest flops) came the PDA and, eventually, the game-changing iPhone.

The medical world is not immune to excessive hype. Take the electronic medical record, a technology that's supposed to change the way we administer healthcare and a key plank in the healthcare reform platform, at least according to President Barack Obama. In January, Obama said EMRs would "cut waste, eliminate red tape and reduce the need to repeat expensive medical tests. It just won't save billions of dollars and thousands of jobs — it will save lives by reducing the deadly but preventable medical errors that pervade our healthcare system."

So is it true? Not according to Jack Cochran, an M.D. who runs an umbrella organization for groups at Kaiser Permanente. Cochran told the Wall Street Journal that the hype over EMRs is a lot of smoke and not enough fire.

"There’s this incredible magical thinking about healthcare IT," Cochran told the newspaper's Health Blog. "Once you put it in, healthcare will be saved."

Cochran called EMRs "disruptive technology," but not in the sense the term is usually understood: "When you put it in, it slows you down."

And doctors used to focusing on their patients dislike the set-up time and investment it takes to get EMR systems up and running, he added.

He's not alone in his assessment; even those on the software end admit there hasn't been a compelling argument for docs to take the time to learn the new technology, according to Sean Hogan, vice president of global healthcare delivery systems for IBM.