Australian ED EHR Study: An End to the Line "Your Evidence Is Anecdotal, Thus Worthless?"

At my Sept. 2010 post "The Dangers of Critical Thinking in A Politicized, Irrational Culture" I lamented that while my early mentor in biomedicine Victor P. Satinsky MD taught the wise credo "critical thinking always, or your patient's dead" in the 1970's, our culture had become so perverse that this credo had been largely supplanted with:

"Critical thinking anytime, and your career's dead."

That post was in reaction to continued heckling on a professional mailing list, the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) Clinical Information Systems Working Group (cis-wg). On this list, Oregon Health Sciences University professor William Hersh expounded on how the evidence of health IT dangers was largely "anecdotal" therefore to be discounted, and how I, specifically, "didn't know the literature on health IT."

In that post I put the lie to the latter figment. On the former prevarication Dr. Jon Patrick, author of the recent thorough dissection of problems with the ED EHR system being rolled out in public hospitals in New South Wales, Australia (see my Mar. 5, 2011 post "On an EMR Forensic Evaluation by Professor Jon Patrick from Down Under: More Thoughts"), hit the ball out of the park:

Prof. Patrick to AMIA cis-wg:

I think such defences are particularly unuseful especially with respect to the dismissal of personal stories and experiences as "anecdotes", hence committing them to the realm of folklore. I offer these notions as a counterpoint.

Discounting Anecdotes:

1. Is a perfidious and specious act.

2. It denies early warning signs of problems.

3. It denies a voice and disempowers the working clinical community who have to operationalise decisions made by others.

4. It denies a route to process improvement within an institution - which is most important for EBM and incremental review of local processes.

5. It defends software manufacturers from fault rectification - cuts off even a need to deliberate on it. Critics of the value of anecdotes are squarely on the side of the faulty and deficient manufacturer.

6. A rule of project management is that projects consist of 3 components, cost, quality and time and if their needs to be a compromise it has to be on quality. Anecdotes are early warning signs of such a compromise.

Prof. Patrick had to once again put the lie to this refrain at a comment on the HISTalk blog yesterday, where the anonymous proprietor had written in a review of Patrick's EHR study:

... On the other hand, I wouldn’t say it’s [Prof. Patrick's Cerner FirstNet study] necessarily unbiased, it focuses on implementation of a single department application that didn’t go well for a variety of reasons (despite many successful FirstNet implementations elsewhere), it uses the unchallenged anecdotal comments of unhappy users who make it clear they liked their previous EDIS better, and it nitpicks (I wasn’t moved to find a pitchfork when I learned that the primary keys in the Millennium database aren’t named consistently).

[Considering the complexity and changeability of healthcare and the corresponding software lifecycle, I duly note that that latter attitude about 'failing to find pitchforks' regarding breaches of sound software engineering practices seems to be a symptom of the larger health IT disease that Prof. Patrick writes about - ed.]

Dr. Patrick then knocked the ball out of the Southern Hemisphere with a comment of his own about anecdotalism and a link to an expansion of the aforementioned ideas he'd shared on "discounting anecdotes":

Prof. Patrick to HISTalk owner:

Your Comment “it uses the unchallenged anecdotal comments of unhappy users ” is not only unfair but unreasonably inaccurate. The comments made by the users are the Directors of 7 EDs and so they have a right to carry authority by virtue of the experience but also the number of 6 out 7 presenting a view of Firstnet as unfit for purpose has numeric validity, which they justify with about 20+ pages of their comments – see Part 2 Appendix 2.

I would also point readers to my editorial about the role of personal experiences being the most useful information to understand the nature of socio-technical failures.

The essay at that link, "The Validity of Personal Experiences in Evaluating HIT", is an editorial in Johns Hopkins informaticist Chris Lehmann's brilliant new journal "Applied Clinical Informatics."

The editorial is available free, and is a must-read for anyone in a decision-making or managerial role in mission critical domains, including our elected representatives.

In the editorial Dr. Patrick concludes. similarly to his earlier AMIA mailing list opinion:

... the denial of recounted personal experiences in discussion and analysis of HIT is biased and specious and has the effect of:

1. Denying early warning signs of problems.

2. Denying a voice for the working clinical community who have to operationalise decisions made by others and thus disempowers them.

3. Denying process improvement within an institution – which is most important for Evidence Based Medicine and incremental review of local processes.

4. Discourages staff from engaging in any form of process improvement hence worsening the sense of disenchantment.

Every legitimate personal experience of a HIT deserves to be considered on its merits lest we wish to retreat from process and product improvement. Mechanisms of censorship both implicit due to contrived processes of disinformation and disempowerment or explicit due to contractual specifications will lead to more waste, lost productivity, contempt for the providers, and distress among frontline staff rather than increased productivity and improved patient health and safety as we all desire.

In my view, the drivers or motivators for the "anecdotalist" accusation are these, singly or in combination:

  • Too much "education" to see the nose on one's face, as in, to think zebras and unicorns instead of horses when hearing hoofbeats outside one's midwest U.S. abode (eggheads);

  • Too little common sense (fools), as in Scott Adams' example: "IGNORING ALL ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE - Example: I always get hives immediately after eating strawberries. But without a scientifically controlled experiment, it’s not reliable data. So I continue to eat strawberries every day, since I can’t tell if they cause hives";

  • Too much concern for the possible interruption of flow of money or power in one's direction (gonifs).

In conclusion, the anecdotalist refrain of "your evidence is anecdotal" [therefore of little or no value] when used repetitively against competent observers is the refrain of eggheads, fools and gonifs.

In healthcare, the end result is "your patient's dead."

My "anecdotal relative" injured in a mid-2010 HIT mishap is sadly an example.

[June 2011 addendum: my relative, after much suffering, has now died of complications of the "anecdotal HIT mishap" - ed.]

As for myself, I am a Markopolist (see my Sept. 2010 post "Health IT: On Anecdotalism and Totalitarianism").

-- SS