Late Breaking News
Electronic Records System Unreliable, Difficult to Use, Service Officials Tell Congress
- Categorized in: May 2009 Issue
WASHINGTON—AHLTA, the Department of Defense’s $4 million electronic medical record system, continues to be difficult for military physicians to use, according to top military health leaders who spoke at a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing at the end of March.
At a Congressional hearing titled “AHLTA is ‘Intolerable,’ Where do we go from here?” top Department of Defense and service leaders told members that medical personnel are hampered by an electronic medical record system that, among other issues, is slow, difficult to use, unreliable and frequently crashes.“Being the first service to vigorously support the fielding ofAHLTAfive years ago, we faced a near mutiny of our healthcare providers, our doctors, our nurse practitioners, physician assistants and others last summer,” Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, MC, USA, told committee members at a joint hearing held by the Military Personnel Subcommittee and the Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee.
Committee members also voiced concern about how the system was impacting provider morale and patient care. “The committee has heard from military doctors and nurses who use AHLTA that it is unreliable, difficult to use and has decreased the number of patients they can see each day. We have also heard that medical professionals leave the military because of their frustration with AHLTA,” said Rep. Joe Wilson, R.-S.C., ranking member of the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.
A Troubled System
AHLTA is currently deployed worldwide to 70 hospitals, 410 clinics and 6 dental clinics. In addition, the system is used in 14 theater hospitals and 208 forward resuscitative sites.
While Army, Navy and Air Forcer medical leaders who testified all stressed the importance of an electronic medical record, they all expressed frustrations with AHLTA. Dr. Schoomaker told committee members that medical personnel, particularly specialists, often “spend as much or more time working around the system as they do with the system.” He said that the services are still not effectively able to seamlessly access complete data of patients from the battlefield between the military treatment facilities and the Department of Defense and the Veteran’s Administration.
Last year he said he knew he had a problem when he asked a physician who is a self-described “super user” of the system whether she was a “super fan” of the system and she responded that she was not. “When our best and most faithful users of AHLTA could not admit to being fans of the system, I knew we were really having serious problems,” Dr. Schoomaker said.
He blamed the system’s failures on a lack of a clear-cut strategy for implementing AHLTA—a problem he believes still exists. “In my opinion, the failures of AHLTA can be attributed to the overall lack of a clear, actionable strategy and poor execution from its genesis. As a result of the MHS’s lack of an information management/information technology strategy up to this point, theArmy Medical Department has been largely frustrated by a number of obstacles that continue to impede the system’s capabilities and functionality,” he said.
He also said that the services should have a greater input in decision making regarding AHLTA. “Military health system information technology investments and solutions should be transparent to the services sitting here at the table and should be jointly governed, meaning that we with service input are treated as principal customer clients of the system and that we are heard and acted upon promptly,” he said.
Discontent with AHLTA
Leaders from the Navy and Air Force detailed the challenges that their personnel face in using AHLTA. “Almost all of the providers I spoke to relate to the system going down unexpectedly, recently at least once a week,” Navy Deputy Surgeon General Rear. Adm. Thomas R. Cullison, MC, USN, told committee members. He added that while no one would like to return to paper records, providers are “largely dissatisfied” with the system and that the system slows down their clinic time. “Most of our providers say they have to stay later in the afternoon to finish up notes simply because it slows down clinic time,” he said.
Air Force Deputy Surgeon General Maj. Gen. Charles Bruce Green, USAF, MC, told the committee that Air Force primary care physicians spend about 40 percent of their time working with AHLTA versus 60 percent of their time with patients. On the other hand, specialists are “working around the system trying to find new solutions,” since the system does not address the needs unique to their practices. In his written testimony, Dr. Green said that the problems associated with AHLTA have resulted in “low productivity and provider morale.”
Then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs S. Ward Casscells, M.D., told committee members that many of the problems that AHLTA has suffered have been “self-inflicted wounds,” due to software contracts with vendors that were “poorly written.” “We have had, over the past decade, contracts that were poorly written from the standpoint of performance, they have loopholes in them that permitted delays. We have, in some instances, lax oversight of some of these contracts,” he said. He also acknowledged that there has been a high incidence of cyber attacks on the system “so much so that we have had to ban, at least for now, the thumb drives that people find so helpful,” he said. In moving forward to rectify AHLTA problems, DoD has adopted a Unified Strategy Regional Distribtion Approach, a three-phased plan for reshaping the electronic health system. In written testimony, Dr. Casscells explained this strategy seeks to “improve provider satisfaction, improve reliability and strengthen data sharing throughout DoD and Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare delivery continuum and with private healthcare providers.” The first phase of the approach will focus on “stabilizing performance, reliability and the core infrastructure,” of the system according to Casscell’s written testimony.
“I want to be wary of overpromising. We have done that in the past, but I am excited about this. I think there is a chance here that we can once again be leaders for the nation in electronic health records, as was the case several decades ago. I would like to think that a year or two from now, you will agree with me that AHLTA has gone from intolerable to indispensible,” Dr. Casscells told committee members.
Tommy J. Morris, acting director in DoD’s office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Health Protection and Readiness Programs, said that the only service that nonconcurred with their proposed blueprint to overhaul AHLTA was the Army.
Dr. Schoomaker, on his part, challenged the notion that there was actually a “strategy” in place for rectifying AHLTA. “Mr. Morris has got a plan, he does not have a strategy. We asked for a strategy. A plan is just one element of a larger strategy. We asked for a strategy and our involvement in that strategy, so with respect, that is what we in a sense partially nonconcurred with,” Dr. Schoomaker said.