EHR Usability Problems Linked To Potential Patient Harm

Posted on April 9, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

If you’re a clinician, you’ve probably always felt that EHR usability problems were a factor in some patient care glitches. Now, there’s some research backing up this hunch. While the numbers of EHR-specific events represented in the study are relatively low, its lead researcher said that it probably underestimated the problem by several orders of magnitude.

The study, which was profiled in the American Journal of Managed Care concluded, that at least some patient safety events were attributable to usability issues. The study, which was just published in JAMA, involved the analysis of nearly 2 million reported safety events taking place from 2013 to 2016 in 571 healthcare facilities in Pennsylvania. The data also included records from a large mid-Atlantic multi-hospital academic medical system.

Of the 1.735 million reports, 1,956 (0.11%) directly mentioned an EHR vendor or product. Also, 557 (0.03%) include language explicitly suggesting that usability concerns played a role in possible patient harm, AJMC reported.

Meanwhile, of the 557 events, 84% involved a situation where patients needed to be monitored to preclude harm, 14% of events potentially caused temporary harm, 1% potentially caused permanent harm and under 1% (2 cases), resulted in death.

The lead researcher on the study, Raj Ratwani, PhD, MA, told the AJMC that these issues are unlikely to resolve unless EHR vendors better understand how providers manage the rollout of their products.

Even if the vendor has done a good job with usability, he suggests, healthcare organizations adopting the platform sometimes make changes to the final configuration during their implementation of the product, something which could be undoing some of the smart usability choices and safety choices made by the vendor. “We really need to focus on the variability that’s occurring during the implementation and ensuring that vendors and providers are working together,” Ratwani said.

Along the way, it’s worth pointing out that the researchers themselves feel that the actual number of usability-related patient safety events could be far higher than the study would suggest.

Ratwani cautioned that he and his team took a “very, very conservative approach” to how they analyzed the patient safety reports. In fact, he suspects that since patient safety events are substantially underreported, the number of events related to poor usability is probably also very understated as well.

He also noted that while the study only included reports that explicitly mentioned the name of the vendor or product, clinicians usually don’t include such names when their writing up a safety report.