Study: Hospital EMR Rollouts Didn’t Cause Patient Harm

Rolling out a hospital EMR can be very disruptive. The predictable problems that can arise – from the need to cut back on ambulatory patient visits to the staff learning curve to unplanned outages – are bad enough. And of course, when the implementation hits a major snag, things can get much worse.

Just to pull one name out of a hat, consider the experience of the Vancouver Island Health Authority in British Columbia, Canada. One of the hospitals managed by the Authority, which is embroiled in a $174 million Cerner implementation, had to move physicians in its emergency department back to pen and paper in July. Physicians had complained that the system was changing medication orders and physician instructions.

But fortunately, this experience is definitely the exception rather than the rule, according to a study appearing in The BMJ. In fact, such rollouts typically don’t cause adverse events or needless deaths, nor do they seem to boost hospital readmissions, according to the journal.

The study, which was led by a research team from Harvard, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital, looked at the association between EHR implementation and short-term inpatient mortality, adverse safety events or readmissions among Medicare enrollees getting care at 17 U.S. hospitals. The hospitals selected for the study had rolled out or replaced their EHRs in a “big bang”-style, single-day go-live in 2011 and 2012.

To get a sense of how selected hospitals performed, the team studied patients admitted to the studied facilities 90 days before and 90 days after EHR implementation. The researchers also gathered similar data from a control group of all admissions during the same period by hospitals in the same referral region. For selected hospitals, they analyzed data on 28,235 patients admitted 90 days before the implementation, and 26,453 admitted 90 days after the EHR cutover. (The control size was 284,632 admissions before and 276,513 after.)

Apparently, researchers were expecting to see patient care problems arise. Their assumption was that in the wake of the go-live, the hospitals would see a short increase in mortality, readmissions and adverse safety events. One of the reasons they expected to see this bump in problems is that some negative problems related to time and season, such as the “weekend effect” and the “July effect,” are well documented in existing research. Surely the big changes engendered by an EHR cutover would have an impact as well, they reasoned.

But that’s not what they found. In fact, the researchers wrote, “there was no evidence of a significant or consistent negative association between EHR implementation and short-term mortality, readmissions, or adverse events.”

I was as surprised as the researchers to learn that EHR rollouts studied didn’t cause patient harm or health instability. Considering the immense impact an EHR can have on clinical workflow, it seems strange to read that no new problems arose. That being said, hospitals in this group may have been doing upgrades – which have to be less challenging than going digital for the first time – and were adopting at a time when some best practices had emerged.

Regardless, given the immense challenges posed by hospital EHR rollouts, it’s good to read about a few that went well.  We all need some good news!

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.