When IT is Dangerous to Your Health

If you have worked in an organization, you have undoubtedly dealt with its information technology or information services department. On good days, they provide the technology platform that allows employees to work efficiently. On bad days, when the system is slow, your computer is acting up or the software you must use is not intuitive, the IT department seems unconcerned with the practical realities of employee life. That’s when employees talk about about their Information “Dis-Services” department.

Inevitably, these disruptions of service lead to employee stress. And we know that too much stress can be bad for us.

But there’s another type of stress that may be even worse: the stress physicians experience when dealing with uncooperative IT. Why worse? Because stressed out doctors cannot provide the quality healthcare we need.

How bad is this problem? A recently published longitudinal study of doctors in Finland revealed that they suffer from considerable stress related to their information systems. The reasons for the stress are predictable (and likely are similar to your workplace):

  • the information systems are slow and unreliable
  • they do not adequately support the physician’s daily work or the reality of multi-professional teams
  • usability problems
  • system failures
  • poor documentation
  • difficulty in retrieving data
  • time-consuming data entry
  • interoperability challenges

One might expect stress to decline over time as doctors became more proficient with their systems. But that is not the case in this study. A possible reason for this is that the information systems are constantly changing as part of an improvement effort. Unfortunately, the user experience during the transition can be challenging. Another possible reason for growing stress is that, in fact, the information systems are still too complicated and confusing.

Lest you think this is a problem only in Finland, a 2017 article mentions recent studies in the United States and Switzerland that indicate that electronic medical records are driving higher levels of stress and burnout among doctors. This is due, in part, to the growing burden these information systems place on doctors:

  • physicians spent 27% of their work day on patient care and 49.2% on electronic medical records and clerical work
  • physicians spent approximately two hours on clerical work for every one hour of direct patient care

When our doctors are increasingly focused on clerical tasks rather than patient care, then we know the system is broken. When that broken system ratchets up stress levels and burnout among medical personnel, then we have a situation that is dangerous to patients.

Strikingly, the advice in both the Finnish and US articles is the same: involve doctors more closely in the development and deployment of their information systems so they can help improve usability and stability. In addition, the US article recommends that doctors have a say in determining if the workflow dictated by these information systems makes sense. They should look for ways to streamline processes and push clerical work to people who do not have medical licenses. Finally, consider appointing dedicated scribes to relieve the clerical burden and computer liaisons who work directly with doctors to help them learn and practice smarter ways of working with their IT.

If you think you are off the hook because you don’t work in healthcare, think again. How many of these IT-related stressors exist in your organization? And what is your Information SERVICES department doing about them?


[Photo Credit: Pixabay]