Atul Gawande has a piece in the New Yorker titled Why Doctors Hate their Computers. The title is deceptive. In the first place doctors don’t hate computers (I’ve never met one who did, have you?). In the body of the paper Gawande doesn’t even seem to attempt to make that case. He does point out how doctors hated the way in which they were forced to adopt health information technology and the culture that went alongside. But, though he talks around it (and he talks a lot around it) he fails to answer the question of why. Is there something wrong with computers themselves in the current state of development? Is it the way policymakers and administrators have forced the implementation? Or is it that docs just need an attitude adjustment? He implies a little of each. Overall the article is incoherent.
Gawande has thrown together a mishmash of anecdotes, unreferenced claims and quotes from supposed experts. And the qualifications of these experts? Well, consider this one:
Gregg Meyer sympathizes, but he isn’t sorry. As the chief clinical officer at Partners HealthCare, Meyer supervised the software upgrade. An internist in his fifties, he has the commanding air, upright posture, and crewcut one might expect from a man who spent half his career as a military officer.
Hmmm. A commanding air, an upright posture and a crewcut. I think I’m afraid of this guy. He seems to think doctors have too much autonomy and a bad attitude to boot. He says:
“But we think of this as a system for us and it’s not,” he said. “It is for the patients.”
Meyer just gave himself away. He’s operating on the idea that the interests of doctors are opposed to the interests of patients. It’s an ethical question worth pondering but not a great starting premise. Gawande seems to accept it uncritically. A little further on Gawande says of Meyer, also uncritically:
Gregg Meyer is understandably delighted to have the electronic levers to influence the tens of thousands of clinicians under his purview. He had spent much of his career seeing his hospitals blighted by unsafe practices that, in the paper-based world, he could do little about.
Evidence based medicine, particularly its third pillar (the importance of the expertise of the individual clinician) opposes such a top down approach. Does Gawande see anything wrong with Meyer’s line of thinking? If he does he doesn’t say so.
It’s style over substance:
Jessica Jacobs, a longtime office assistant in my practice—mid-forties, dedicated, with a smoker’s raspy voice—
As if that’s supposed to be a convincer in some way. But what does it mean, exactly? That she’s got savvy? That her dedication to her work has taken its toll? It’s left to our imagination.
Gawande fails to even come close to making the case that doctors hate computers, let alone answer the question of why, but he does point out some of the negative consequences of the EMR. Maybe this is progress, because it would have been nearly forbidden speech about a decade ago.