UnitedHealth recall shows risks posed by electronic health records

Spurred on by the federal government, startups of all sizes have been rushing in to provide doctors and hospitals with electronic health records systems. But a recall by UnitedHealth Group, reported on Tuesday, highlights how the rush to health records brings its own set of risks.

First reported by Bloomberg News, UnitedHealth Group recalled its Picis ED PulseCheck software used for managing electronic health records (EHR) in hospital emergency departments in more than 20 states. Thanks to a glitch in the system, the software didn’t display doctors’ notes about patient prescriptions.

The company has said that it resolved the issue with an update and voluntarily reported the bug to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in late July (although it wasn’t publicized until this week). And it said that the problem didn’t lead to patient harm.

But, at a time when the government is paying out billions in incentives to doctors who switch to electronic health records (EHR) systems, and as venture capital investors fuel the growth of EHR startups, the incident points out the pitfalls associated with going digital.

As Ross Koppel, adjunct professor of sociology and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told Bloomberg, the recall emphasizes that little information about EHR problems is disclosed. Medical device companies are obligated to inform the FDA of safety issues with their products but electronic health records companies are not held to the same requirement.

In the last few months, medical staffers at various hospitals have voiced complaints about EHR systems. In May, nurses at Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, Calif. reported that a problem with their EHR system was causing patients to receive the wrong medication. And, in July, nurses at Sutter Health’s East Bay hospitals in California said their new system was leading to delays in contacting doctors and getting medications filled in a timely manner.

As the adoption of electronic health records grows, so is the number of errors. According to a December report from the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, the number of EHR-related patient safety incidents doubled from 555 in 2010 to 1,142 in 2011. The organization, however, said that in nearly 90 percent of the cases patients were not harmed by the incidents.

Still, while the transition to digital may be bumpy, more studies are showing that EHR systems are beginning to deliver on their promise of increasing efficiency, coordination and care quality.  This week, for example, two separate studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that EHR systems reduced emergency room visits and hospitalizations of diabetes patients and that they can improve the detection of growth problems among children.