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My last two posts explored the question of the doctor/patient relationship in the context of romantic relationships. The first one asked if we were anywhere close to getting engaged, the second looked at the possibility that the whole enchilada needed some intervention-level relationship counseling.

In the couple of weeks since, I’ve had some interesting digital and face to face conversations about digital communication tools, patient engagement, and the doctor/patient relationship that have led me to ask if the crop of EHR (Electronic Health Record) systems in current use across the land, as part of Obamacare’s drive toward healthcare system quality, safety, and access (or, as I like to put it, to the tune of “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” EHR, HIE, E-I-E-I-O!), aren’t analogous to online dating sites like Match.com.

healthcare cupid imageWhich leads me to the observation that the EHR tech I see – all of it, from Epic to Practice Fusion to athenahealth to NextGen to Cerner – can in many ways be compared to Match.com. You put in personal data – name, personal details, outcome goals – and the technology (supposedly) helps you toward your goal. With EHR, that’s best-health, with Match.com, it’s a romantic relationship, but both take data input, digitize it, and claim to provide solutions based on that input.

And I have to say that my observed success ratio on both EHR technology and online dating is similar. As in: mostly it feels like “failure to launch.”

So … go grab a cup of coffee, or a bottle of water. This will be a lengthy look at that question, but I promise to bring it home with at least a couple of laughs along with my pointed observations.

The leading lights of healthcare IT haven’t made the doctor-patient relationship any easier to create and maintain than Match.com has for romatic relationships. For every success story, there are hundreds (thousands? millions?) of examples of bitter frustration. With the billions (yes, with a B) spent on buying and implementing EHR systems, the phrase “meaningful use” – which was supposed to be the demonstration of clinical and patient communication tools to enable better quality healthcare – has become a punchline.

A couple of weeks ago, I shared a post from The Health Care Blog by Bob Wachter, an interview with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center CIO John Halamka, on my social media channels. In it, Halamka said that only 3% of patients wanted their health records kept locked up tight behind virtual doors, so he had to lock up the data of the other 97% to keep the 3% happy. When I shared that post on my LinkedIn profile, it opened a conversation about that statement, such as what the heck the underlying facts to support it were.

“It’s interesting that the 3% figure was not referenced. I am not in the health informatics field, nor do I have time to do an in depth literature review for discussion. However, a quick Google search yields several informative studies. One small study (n=30) of patient preferences found that patients wanted granularity in terms of what they want to share, or not share. No participant wanted to universally share ALL information. Another study (n=105) reported that 1 in 2 patients hid medical information from their own doctors.” tweet

In other words, is that 3%/97% statement the equivalent of creating convenient details about yourself on an online dating profile? When I asked a few people in the e-patient zone about this, I heard this story about how a major health records system in Boston [spoiler alert: Halamka’s IT system] basically spewed garbage instead of useful patient health history data when they opened the data taps to the now-dead Google Health. So, apparently it’s exactly like confabulating facts on an online dating profile. Also, some additional reading led me to a story on CIO about an epic system failure, also in Boston [spoiler alert: I’ll let you figure out what/why], that tied up an entire hospital network’s system for five long days in November 2002.

Back to my metaphor, of EHR tech being analogous to online dating. If the communication partner you’re talking to says they’re a 42 year old architect in Cambridge, or the lab that’s just completed the path report on your biopsy, can you trust what they’re saying? Is there accessible, verifiable information to support the claim? Can you believe what you’re seeing? Can you even SEE what’s really there?

Both of those scenarios rely on trust, and a sense of security. And the ability to actually SEE. WHAT’S. GOING. ON. As Mordac, the “preventer of information services” in the Dilbert comic strip, says, “Security is more important than usability. In a perfect world, no one would be able to use anything.”

I had the opportunity last week to be part of the Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS)’s first Patient Engagement Summit in Orlando. Yep, more acronyms – E-I-E-I-O. The two panels I was part of talked about the current state of the doctor/patient relationship, and the overall event was all about how technology can either support, or hinder, that relationship. The crazy part is that both the clinical side of healthcare – doctors, nurses, researchers – and the patient side – the rest of us – are desperately determined to get engaged (with each other), get married (create the best possible outcomes), and live happily ever after (better community health for EVERYBODY!).

The trouble is, I’m afraid, that the tools that are supposed to be the grease on the rails to making that happen – the digital communication systems that hold our care data – are set up by Mordac. Screaming headlines about stuff like the recent Anthem breach are like screaming headlines about sharp rises in sexual assault figures – they’re a real buzz-kill for trust between possible relationship partners.

If you actually know me, you know I’ve taken a rather extreme step toward fostering relationship clarity, doctor/patient-wise. It’s the image that is my Twitter avatar (click that link to see it), and it is a real 3×3″ QR code tattooed on my chest. I can’t say that it has any effect on my dating profile (I bailed on online dating years ago), but it has made many of my healthcare-relationship interactions … interesting.

Can I, or any of us, trust health IT and EHRs to help make our healthcare relationships happy and successful? Or are we stuck in the slough of despond that is Match.com?

Give me your thoughts in the comments …

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