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The Ethics Of EMR: How Unproven Technology Affects Patients

Tue, 02/05/2013 - 9:35am
Wes Fisher, MD

The implementation of the electronic medical record (EMR) in American medicine gained a powerful foothold in medical care with the passage of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) in 2009. With the passage of this act came the promise of improved efficiencies, safety and ultimately reduced cost delivery for health care. Also, some $18 billion dollars in financial incentives were offered to physicians to offset costs to deploy these systems nationwide. To assure adoption, if the systems were not implemented by 2015, doctors and care providers will suffer payment penalties from the government. For physicians who care for Medicare patients, there was no alternative than to deploy these systems.

In 2010 alone, the EMR market was pegged at $15.7 billion dollars, a cost that is ultimately passed to all Americans. In addition, despite all of the changes that health care reform has brought to date, people in some states continue to see their insurance premiums mushroom over 20% in 2013 from the preceding year. Simply put, patients are finding health care anything but “affordable.”

We should acknowledge that there might be cause, ethically, to deploy a technology that truly benefits patients at some cost. After all, you have to break a few eggs to make a good omelet. If interoperability of EMR systems between facilities were commonplace and clinical data were shared with ease while patient privacy was vigorously upheld flawlessly, the cost of these systems might be ethically justified.

But the promise of improved efficiencies to our health care system, improved patient safety and (especially) reduced cost for our health care system remain elusive. More importantly these goals remain unproven. In fact, examples that the opposite is occurring abounds as doctors struggle to enter ever-increasing amounts of information of no relevance to the patient’s presenting problem just to prove they’re using the EMR in a “meaningful” way, health data security breeches continue, data-mining of patient information is occurring not just for patient care, but for marketing purposes, and the direct costs of health care for patients continues to rise, not fall. Proponents of these systems will argue these issues are nothing more than “growing pains” of these novel systems.

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