The Overdose – When EHRs Go Wrong

We’re getting more and more stories coming out about the impact for bad that an EHR can have in medicine. Most of them have been anecdotal stories like The Old Man and the Doctor Fable and Please Choose One. However, today I came across one that talked about an overdose due to an error in the use of EHR. Here’s a summary of the discovery:

Levitt’s supervising nurse was stumped, too, so they summoned the chief resident in pediatrics, who was on call that night. When the physician arrived in the room, he spoke to and examined the patient, who was anxious, mildly confused, and still complaining of being “numb all over.”

At first, he was perplexed. But then he noticed something that stopped him cold. Six hours earlier, Levitt had given the patient not one Septra pill—a tried-and-true antibiotic used principally for urinary and skin infections — but 38½ of them.

Levitt recalls that moment as the worst of her life. “Wait, look at this Septra dose,” the resident said to her. “This is a huge dose. Oh my God, did you give this dose?”

“Oh my God,” she said. “I did.”

If you read the whole article linked above, you’ll discover that the issue happened when entering the dosage for a drug into the Epic EHR system at UCSF. I’m not here to point fingers since every case is unique and you could argue forever about whether it’s the software’s responsibility to do something or whether the person using the software is responsible for understanding how the software works. I think that’s a discussion that goes nowhere since the right answer is that both can do better.

These types of stories are heartbreaking. They even cause some to question whether we should be going electronic at all. I’m reminded of a time I was considering working at a company that did expert witness testimony for cars. One of their hypothesis was that the computers that are now found in cars will usually save people’s lives. However, in a few cases they’re going to do something wrong and someone is going to lose their life. I think that’s where we’re at with EHR software. It’s not perfect and maybe never will be, but does it save more lives than it kills?

That’s a tough question that some people don’t want to face, but we’re going to face it whether we acknowledge the question or not. Personally, I think the answer to that question is that we do save more lives with an EHR than we damage. In the case above, there were still a lot of humans involved that could have verified and corrected the mistake with the EHR. They didn’t, but they could have done so and likely do with hundreds of other mistakes that occur every day. This human touch is a great counterbalance to the world of technology.

If we expanded the discussion beyond lost lives, it would be a much more challenging and complex discussion to know if EHR makes an organization more or less productive. I believe in the short term, that discussion is up for debate. However, in the long term I’m long on the benefits of EHR when it comes to productivity.

None of this should excuse us from the opportunity to learn important lessons from the story above. We need to be careful about over reliance on data in the EHR (similar to over reliance on a paper chart). We need to make our EHR smarter so that they can warn us of potential problems like the ones above. We need EHR vendors to not let known EHR problems remain unfixed. We need a solid testing plan to avoid as many of these situations as possible from ever happening in the first place.

There’s a lot of work to do still to improve EHR. This story is a tragic one which should remind us all of the important work we’re doing and why we need to work really hard to improve it now.

About the author

John Lynn

John Lynn

John Lynn is the Founder of the, a network of leading Healthcare IT resources. The flagship blog, Healthcare IT Today, contains over 13,000 articles with over half of the articles written by John. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 20 million times.

John manages Healthcare IT Central, the leading career Health IT job board. He also organizes the first of its kind conference and community focused on healthcare marketing, Healthcare and IT Marketing Conference, and a healthcare IT conference,, focused on practical healthcare IT innovation. John is an advisor to multiple healthcare IT companies. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can be found on Twitter: @techguy.

1 Comment

  • So how does such an error happen? How can one order and administer 38 pills instead of one? How can eprescribe not question what should seem like an overdose?

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