Explore This IssueNovember 2014
A 62-year-old woman presents with severe [vertigo] that has increased in intensity over the past 10 years. She has been evaluated and treated by a variety of physicians at several institutions. One of the reasons the patient has changed doctors is her sense that her previous doctors did not listen to her. As you begin to take her history and type it into the electronic health record (EHR), she shares with you her fears that she is going to end up in a wheelchair like her mother, and she becomes tearful. You stop typing and realize you have spent most of the appointment staring at the computer monitor. You are running an hour late, and four patients are waiting to see you.
The adoption of health information technology into medical practice will likely lead to significant improvements in healthcare. Congress is betting on it. With the passage of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) in 2009, the federal government, through Medicare and Medicaid, has incentivized clinicians and hospitals who demonstrate “meaningful use” of EHRs. In addition to improving quality and coordination of care, HITECH was designed to decrease medical errors, protect the privacy and security of personal health information, and generate savings.
However, a wide range of ethical concerns associated with the use of EHRs has been identified, including breach of confidentiality and privacy, overreliance on previously obtained patient historical information, and ambiguities regarding the authorship of notes. Critics are also concerned about the possible use of EHR systems to increase physician or hospital billing (Neurology. 2013;80:1057-1061; J Med Ethics. 2012;38:535-539).
One of the biggest ethical concerns about the EHR is its impact on the clinical interaction. The presence of a computer in the exam room represents a potential intrusion by a third party, resulting in triangulation of the physician–patient relationship (J Am Med. Inform Assoc. 2014;21:e147-e151). Patients may question the professionalism of a physician who appears to be focusing more on the computer than the patient and perceive the interaction to be paternalistic. They may misunderstand what the physician is doing with the computer and wonder whether it is in the patient’s best interest for such a distraction to be present. With the physician’s eyes glued to a computer, the perception of a patient-centered approach may be lost. And, if studies demonstrate that using an EHR compromises the quality of the clinical interaction, financial incentives to use an EHR could introduce a conflict of interest.