Healthcare News & Insights

Study: Electronic alerts didn’t increase screening rates

How effective is health IT at improving patient safety and care? While many studies have shown the positive impact of tech tools, this recent research suggests some ways they could be improved. 

One of the often touted benefits of electronic health record (EHR) systems and other health IT tools is that they can offer electronic reminders to doctors when patients are due for a test or treatment.

However, just because those reminders are offered doesn’t doctors will use them, as shown in a recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, found that an electronic reminder system notifying doctors when patients were due for a colorectal cancer screening did nothing to actually increase screening rates among patients.

The goal of the study was to gauge the impact of an electronic system implemented at eight VA hospitals in 2007 and integrated with the VA’s EHR system.

Researchers looked at screening rates for 2006 and 2007, two years before the electronic reminder system was adopted, and compared them to the rates for 2008 and 2009, two years during which the system was in use. They also compared those sets of data to cancer screening rates at 121 VA hospitals without the electronic reminder system installed.

The results: There was only a minimal change in the cancer screening rates for patients when the reminder system was used.

In 2006 and 2007, 38% and 32% of patients, respectively, stayed on schedule with their cancer screenings. For 2008 and 2009, when the electronic reminders were used, those numbers changed to 34% and 33%.

In the VA hospitals without the reminder system, screening rates for those years were 31%, 30%, 32% and 31%.

Why did the electronic alert system have little to no effect on cancer screening rates? According to researchers, the problem may be that doctors simply ignore the alerts because they see too many and they interrupt their normal workflows.

Other recent studies have documented the impact of so-called “alert fatigue,” which occurs when doctors get too many unnecessary electronic reminders and begin to ignore all of them. Experts recommend healthcare organizations take into account the method of offering those alerts when choosing an EHR system — if the system provides alerts doctors actually use, it can help improve patient safety and preventative care.

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