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New CMS rule challenges hospitals, but not vendors, to make EHRs safer


Configuration problems

A handful of vendors are working on what the JAMA article suggests, but there are about 1,000 EHR developers, Dr. Sittig notes. Moreover, there are configuration problems in the design of many EHRs, even if the products have the recommended features.

“For example, it’s often possible to meet the SAFER recommendations, but not all the vendors make that the default setting. That’s one of the things our paper says they should do,” Dr. Sittig says.

Conversely, some hospitals turn off certain features because they annoy doctors, he notes. For instance, the SAFER guides recommend that allergies, problem list entries, and diagnostic test results be entered and stored using standard, coded data elements in the EHR, but often the EHR makes it easier to enter free text data.

Default settings can be wiped out during system upgrades, he added. That has happened with drug interaction checkers. “If you don’t test the system after upgrades and reassess it annually, you might go several months without your drug-drug interaction checker on. And your doctors aren’t complaining about not getting alerts. Those kinds of mistakes are hard to catch.”

Some errors in an EHR may be caught fairly quickly, but in a health system that treats thousands of patients at any given time, those mistakes can still cause a lot of potential patient harm, Dr. Sittig points out. Some vendors, he says, are building tools to help health care organizations catch those errors through what is called “anomaly detection.” This is similar to what credit card companies do when they notice you’ve bought a carpet in Saudi Arabia, although you’ve never traveled abroad, he notes.

“You can look at alert firing data and notice that all of a sudden an alert fired 500 times today when it usually fires 10 times, or it stopped firing,” Dr. Sittig observes. “Those kinds of things should be built into all EHRs. That would be an excellent step forward.”

A version of this article first appeared on


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