Are EMRs alleviating preventable medical errors yet?

In the decade-and-a-half since the startling “To Err is Human” report, it’s still hard to discern whether billions invested in electronic medical records are improving patient safety.
By Mike Restuccia
08:39 AM
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Health systems have made significant investments in digitizing their operations primarily through the deployment of the electronic medical record (EMR). The EMR platform, in fact, holds the promise of being the foundation to address the many clinical shortfalls documented in the Institute of Medicine (IOM) 1999 landmark report “To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System.”  

The report identified that as many as 98,000 people die in U.S. hospitals each year as a result of preventable medical errors. The source for a significant percentage of these errors is the lack of appropriate patient data available to clinicians at the point of patient care.

With more than 15 years since the IOM report, the question is: “Have these EMR investments made a difference in reducing the reported eye-opening outcomes?" 

It’s an important question to ask and like most in our industry, I’m not completely sure of the answer. A quick scan of the internet identifies multiple articles on the topic that are fairly dated and often speak to the promise of the EMR along with the barriers to adoption. 

Logically, it's sensible to think that having patient data aggregated and distributed freely across a health system as well as to other caregivers should be beneficial to patient care. It’s also sensible to believe that in today’s environment of complex regulation, personalized medicine and ever changing reimbursement models, operating without an EMR seems unfathomable. But where is the study that specifically identifies the benefits and shows improvements from the “To Err is Human” report?

Even without such explicit data, I’ve personally observed that many clinicians have embraced the EMR and report favorably upon that experience and associated outcomes.

Healthcare organizations continue to invest time and resources working with their vendors to further enhance the end-user experience with the goal of recognizing more value and benefits from their EMR.  These investments are also targeted at achieving more a consistent adoption of the EMR throughout the clinical community.

Regardless of my observations, I encourage those in our healthcare industry to share their EMR successes and look to industry representatives to provide updates on the impact the EMR has had on preventable medical errors. 

Implementing the EMR is just the initial step in addressing the medical shortfalls identified in the report. Ongoing investment and fine-tuning of the EMR supported by positive outcomes will lead to further improvements in care for all of our patients.

Mike Restuccia is the CIO of Penn Medicine.