Evidence-based health informatics
February 11, 2016 § 6 Comments
Have we reached peak e-health yet?
Anyone who works in the e-health space lives in two contradictory universes.
The first universe is that of our exciting digital health future. This shiny gadget-laden paradise sees technology in harmony with the health system, which has become adaptive, personal, and effective. Diseases tumble under the onslaught of big data and miracle smart watches. Government, industry, clinicians and people off the street hold hands around the bonfire of innovation. Teeth are unfeasibly white wherever you look.
The second universe is Dickensian. It is the doomy world in which clinicians hide in shadows, forced to use clearly dysfunctional IT systems. Electronic health records take forever to use, and don’t fit clinical work practice. Health providers hide behind burning barricades when the clinicians revolt. Government bureaucrats in crisp suits dissemble in velvet-lined rooms, softly explaining the latest cost overrun, delay, or security breach. Our personal health files get passed by street urchins hand-to-hand on dirty thumbnail drives, until they end up in the clutches of Fagin like characters.
Both of these universes are real. We live in them every day. One is all upside, the other mostly down. We will have reached peak e-health the day that the downside exceeds the upside and stays there. Depending on who you are and what you read, for many clinicians, we have arrived at that point.
The laws of informatics
To understand why e-health often disappoints requires some perspective and distance. Informed observers again and again see the same pattern of large technology driven projects sucking up all the e-health oxygen and resources, and then failing to deliver. Clinicians see that the technology they can buy as a consumer is more beautiful and more useful that anything they encounter at work.
I remember a meeting I attended with Branko Cesnik. After a long presentation about a proposed new national e-health system, focusing entirely on technical standards and information architectures, Branko piped up: “Excuse me, but you’ve broken the first law of informatics”. What he meant was that the most basic premise for any clinical information system is that it exists to solve a clinical problem. If you start with the technology, and ignore the problem, you will fail.
There are many corollary informatics laws and principles. Never build a clinical system to solve a policy or administrative problem unless it is also solving a clinical problem. Technology is just one component of the socio-technical system, and building technology in isolation from that system just builds an isolated technology .
Breaking the laws of informatics
So, no e-health project starts in a vacuum of memory. Rarely do we need to design a system from first principles. We have many decades of experience to tell us what the right thing to do is. Many decades of what not to do sits on the shelf next to it. Next to these sits the discipline of health informatics itself. Whilst it borrows heavily from other disciplines, it has its own central reason to exist – the study of the health system, and of how to design ways of changing it for the better, supported by technology. Informatics has produced research in volume.
Yet today it would be fair to say that most people who work in the e-health space don’t know that this evidence exists, and if they know it does exist, they probably discount it. You might hear “N of 1” excuse making, which is the argument that the evidence “does not apply here because we are different” or “we will get it right where others have failed because we are smarter”. Sometimes system builders say that the only evidence that matters is their personal experience. We are engineers after all, and not scientists. What we need are tools, resources, a target and a deadline, not research.
Well, you are not different. You are building a complex intervention in a complex system, where causality is hard to understand, let alone control. While the details of your system might differ, from a complexity science perspective, each large e-health project ends up confronting the same class of nasty problem.
The results of ignoring evidence from the past are clear to see. If many of the clinical information systems I have seen were designed according to basic principles of human factors engineering, I would like to know what those principles are. If most of today’s clinical information systems are designed to minimize technology-induced harm and error, I will hold a party and retire, my life’s work done.
The basic laws of informatics exist, but they are rarely applied. Case histories are left in boxes under desks, rather than taught to practitioners. The great work of the informatics research community sits gathering digital dust in journals and conference proceedings, and does not inform much of what is built and used daily.
None of this story is new. Many other disciplines have faced identical challenges. The very name Evidence-based Medicine (EBM), for example, is a call to arms to move from anecdote and personal experience, towards research and data driven decision-making. I remember in the late ‘90s, as the EBM movement started (and it was as much a social movement as anything else), just how hard the push back was from the medical profession. The very name was an insult! EBM was devaluing the practical, rich daily experience of every doctor, who knew their patients ‘best’, and every patient was ‘different’ to those in the research trials. So, the evidence did not apply.
EBM remains a work in progress. All you need to do today is to see a map of clinical variation to understand that much of what is done remains without an evidence base to support it. Why is one kind of prosthetic hip joint used in one hospital, but a different one in another, especially given the differences in cost, hip failure and infection? Why does one developed country have high caesarian section rates when a comparable one does not? These are the result of pragmatic ‘engineering’ decisions by clinicians – to attack the solution to a clinical problem one way, and not another. I don’t think healthcare delivery is so different to informatics in that respect.
Is it time for evidence-based health informatics?
It is time we made the praxis of informatics evidence-based.
That means we should strive to see that every decision that is made about the selection, design, implementation and use of an informatics intervention is based on rigorously collected and analyzed data. We should choose the option that is most likely to succeed based on the very best evidence we have.
For this to happen, much needs to change in the way that research is conducted and communicated, and much needs to happen in the way that informatics is practiced as well:
- We will need to develop a rich understanding of the kinds of questions that informatics professionals ask every day;
- Where the evidence to answer a question exists, we need robust processes to synthesize and summarize that evidence into practitioner actionable form;
- Where the evidence does not exist and the question is important, then it is up to researchers to conduct the research that can provide the answer.
In EBM, there is a lovely notion that we need problem oriented evidence that matters (POEM)  (covered in some detail in Chapter 6 of The Guide to Health Informatics). It is easy enough to imagine the questions that can be answered with informatics POEMs:
- What is the safe limit to the number of medications I can show a clinician in a drop-down menu?
- I want to improve medication adherence in my Type 2 Diabetic patients. Is a text message reminder the most cost-effective solution?
- I want to reduce the time my docs spend documenting in clinic. What is the evidence that an EHR can reduce clinician documentation time?
- How gradually should I roll out the implementation of the new EHR in my hospital?
- What changes will I need to make to the workflow of my nursing staff if I implement this new medication management system?
EBM also emphasises that the answer to any question is never an absolute one based on the science, because the final decision is also shaped by patient preferences. A patient with cancer may choose a treatment that is less likely to cure them, because it is also less likely to have major side-effects, which is important given their other goals. The same obviously holds in evidence-based health informatics (EBHI).
The Challenges of EBHI
Making this vision come true would see some significant long term changes to the business of health informatics research and praxis:
- Questions: Practitioners will need develop a culture of seeking evidence to answer questions, and not simply do what they have always done, or their colleagues do. They will need to be clear about their own information needs, and to be trained to ask clear and answerable questions. There will need to be a concerted partnership between practitioners and researchers to understand what an answerable question looks like. EBM has a rich taxonomy of question types and the questions in informatics will be different, emphasizing engineering, organizational, and human factors issues amongst others. There will always be questions with no answer, and that is the time experience and judgment come to the fore. Even here though, analytic tools can help informaticians explore historical data to find the best historical evidence to support choices.
- Answers: The Cochrane Collaboration helped pioneer the development of robust processes of meta-analysis and systematic review, and the translation of these into knowledge products for clinicians. We will need to develop a new informatics knowledge translational profession that is responsible for understanding informatics questions, and finding methods to extract the most robust answers to them from the research literature and historical data. As much of this evidence does not typically come from randomised controlled trials, other methods than meta-analysis will be needed. Case libraries, which no doubt exist today, will be enhanced and shaped to support the EBHI enterprise. Because we are informaticians, we will clearly favor automated over manual ways of searching for, and summarizing, the research evidence . We will also hopefully excel at developing the tools that practitioners use to frame their questions and get the answers they need. There are surely both public good and commercial drivers to support the creation of the knowledge products we need.
- Bringing implementation science to informatics: We know that informatics interventions are complex interventions in complex systems, and that the effect of these interventions vary depending on the organisational context. So, the practice of EBHI will of necessity see answers to questions being modified because of local context. I suspect that this will mean that one of the major research challenges to emerge from embracing EBHI is to develop robust and evidence-based methods to support localization or contextualisation of knowledge. While every context is no doubt unique, we should be able to draw upon the emerging lessons of implementation science to understand how to support local variation in a way that is most likely to see successful outcomes.
- Professionalization: Along with culture change would come changes to the way informatics professionals are accredited, and reaccredited. Continuing professional education is a foundation of the reaccreditation process, and provides a powerful opportunity for professionals to catch up with the major changes in science, and how those changes impact the way they should approach their work.
There comes a moment when surely it is time to declare that enough is enough. There is an unspoken crisis in e-health right now. The rhetoric of innovation, renewal, modernization and digitization make us all want to believers. The long and growing list of failed large-scale e-health projects, the uncomfortable silence that hangs when good people talk about the safety risks of technology, make some think that e-health is an ill-conceived if well intentioned moment in the evolution of modern health care. This does not have to be.
To avoid peak e-health we need to not just minimize the downside of what we do by avoiding mistakes. We also have to maximize the upside, and seize the transformative opportunities technology brings.
Everything I have seen in medicine’s journey to become evidence-based tells me that this will not be at all easy to accomplish, and that it will take decades. But until we do, the same mistakes will likely be rediscovered and remade.
We have the tools to create a different universe. What is needed is evidence, will, a culture of learning, and hard work. Less Dickens and dystopia. More Star Trek and utopia.
Since I wrote this blog a collection of important papers covering the important topic of how we evaluate health informatics and choose which technologies are fit for purpose has been published in the book Evidence-based Health Informatics.
- Slawson DC, Shaughnessy AF, Bennett JH. Becoming a medical information master: feeling good about not knowing everything. The Journal of Family Practice 1994;38(5):505-13
- Tsafnat G, Glasziou PP, Choong MK, et al. Systematic Review Automation Technologies. Systematic Reviews 2014;3(1):74
- Coiera E. Four rules for the reinvention of healthcare. BMJ 2004;328(7449):1197-99