COVID-19 Puts EHR Systems to The Test

COVID-19 written on a space bar of a computer.

Much in the way banks undergo a financial stress test to ensure they can weather tough financial times, electronic healthcare record (EHR) systems are being put through their paces. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 virus has designed this test and came at an unexpected time, so there’s no certain end date.

When a system already has vulnerabilities, a crisis puts those areas into sharp relief. For EHR systems, that includes hackers targeting the system, an inefficient design and the interoperability issues that have bedeviled healthcare for years.

EHR Weaknesses That COVD-19 Is Testing

Healthcare professionals are well aware of the primary issues with EHR systems. In the COVID-19 pandemic, three have come to the forefront.

Vulnerability to Cyberattack

Experts in the EHR field point to the WannaCry cyber-attack on the United Kingdom’s National Health Service as an example of the havoc a cyberattack can cause in a vulnerable system. The cyberattack impacted hospitals, general practitioners and disrupted NHS operations across the UK.

A crisis provides a major distraction that gives hackers an advantage, especially a crisis involving a virus that can impact anyone. And savvy hackers are aware of technical vulnerabilities in the system. As noted by Stat News: “Outdated infrastructure containing components with long-understood vulnerabilities are a hacker’s paradise.”

System Usability

Most EHR systems are not helpful during a healthcare crisis. The system does not assemble patient data in a way that provides a quick narrative of a patient’s healthcare journey, something that could benefit clinicians right now. Rather, information is siloed within different tabs that have data about medication, doctor visits, tests conducted, etc. This makes it more difficult for a clinician to quickly assess the health status of a patient. EHR systems can sometimes miss important information, as well.

EHR Systems Lack Interoperability

Interoperability – the ability of computer systems in different healthcare operations to seamlessly share data – has been an issue with EHR from the start. As things stand, many hospitals cannot share information quickly and accurately. Also, physician offices cannot easily share data on patients with hospitals. This is a problem during the best of times, but the COVID-19 outbreak makes the situation even more critical.

Suggestions for Improving EHR Systems

Epic, one of the major players in the EHR systems market, has released an update that flags patients displaying coronavirus symptoms.

It’s a rare update for systems that often are not very agile, according to a pair of Duke doctors who addressed the impact of the virus on EHR systems. They wrote that “the complexity of most EHR systems makes upgrades and changes slow and expensive.”

The interoperability issue has no immediate fix. While the Duke doctors and others are calling for updates that will increase the ability of systems to speak with one another, that is unlikely to happen anytime soon due to the size and complexity of the issue.

The two doctors made five suggestions for making EHR systems safer and more effective during the crisis.

  • All medical operations with a business continuity plan should review them, ensure technology staff are up to date and establish a “clear hierarchy of technology, data, and business priorities.”
  • Increase all oversight and diligence on computer system administration procedures
  • Increase cybersecurity awareness, preparedness and activity to avoid becoming an easy mark for predatory hackers
  • Enhance productivity by using the applicable apps to supplement clinical workflows
  • Shift clerical staff into data entry and data management functions
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