HIMSS18: Health IT should support communication, not replace it—or else you’re risking lawsuits

Medical malpractice suits are often the result not of poor care, but poor communication, in the experience of attorney and healthcare consultant Heather Hansen. So when health IT tools start getting in the way of communication between clinicians and patients, health systems may be unnecessarily exposing themselves to lawsuits.

In a preview of her presentation at HIMSS18 in Las Vegas, Hansen told HealthExec she’s not trying to slam technology or minimize health IT’s potential benefits. When tools like patient portals and electronic health records replace patient-physician interaction, however, she said you can lose the human touch which can help stave off a malpractice suit before its filed.

“I am not anti-technology at all,” Hansen said. “In fact, I think there are wonderful ways it can be used not only to help patients, but to help providers and avoid litigation. But there’s definitely an issue when we think it can communicate for us.”

Provider dissatisfaction with new technology like EHRs is nothing new. The problem often isn’t with the tech itself, Hansen said, but with how its implemented—namely, without much input from the people who use it every day.

This creates frustration for physicians and leads to mistakes which can result in legal action, such as when clinicians text patients without securing their protected health information or cutting and pasting within their medical record. She emphasized vendors and health IT teams need to be more proactive in including providers in the implementation process, while providers need to learn from the errors which led to lawsuits, even if the cases are thrown out or decided in their favor.

“They don’t know to ask these questions until they’ve been sued and it comes up at a deposition or at trial,” Hansen said. “Truth be told, when these cases are over, they want to forget about them, win or lose. So they move on with their lives and don’t always go back to their IT people and say, ‘How can we fix this problem?,’ because they’re busy caring for patients.”

There have been instances where Hansen has seen the technology to blame, such as one case when fetal monitoring strips doubled the heartbeat of a pregnant mother, masking the lack of a heartbeat for the unborn child, when the plaintiffs were arguing the monitoring should’ve led physicians to perform an emergency C-section. But her overall message to HIMSS attendees is to use technology to improve, not replace communication, while expediting processes and support patient-provider interactions which have been shown to help health systems avoided lawsuits, even after adverse events.

Achieving that goal will take multiple stakeholders coming together and improving how they plan and communicate with each other now.

“I really believe the future of all of this, including pharma and medical devices and technology, is going to be return on relationships,” Hansen said. “We’re so worried about return on investment and venture capitalist money and where is it going, but all of this technology will never replace relationships. Putting relationships as a vital piece of this pie will make everybody better.”