"The Gray Lady" Stumbles: How Could The New York Times Get Things So Wrong?

April 10, 2013
It honestly pains me to say it, but The New York Times, America's most substantive daily newspaper, has gotten things completely wrong when it comes to its recent coverage of the HITECH Act and electronic health records. And what the Times says matters.

It honestly pains me to say it, because I profoundly admire The New York Times, America’s most substantive daily newspaper, and a publication that every single day provides its readers nationally and internationally with some of the best public policy, political, business, cultural and arts reporting anywhere. But, all that having been said, it shocked me that “The Gray Lady,” as the Times has often been called in the past, would publish, in the right-hand column of page 1 of its print edition today (February 20), no less, a story that completely misses the point about the purpose and successes to date of the HITECH Act.

"A Digital Shift on Health Data Swells Profits," by Julie Creswell, seems to go out of its way to misunderstand and misconstrue the core purpose of the HITECH (Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health) Act, as well as to virtually ignore its benefits. The opening one-sentence paragraph says it all. Creswell writes, of a presentation by the Chicago-based Allscripts to physicians in 2009, “It was a tantalizing pitch: come get a piece of a $19 billion government ‘giveaway.’” First of all, characterizing HITECH as a “giveaway,” without in any way mentioning the penalties embedded in the law for providers who haven’t implemented electronic records (EHRs) by the end of 2015, is simply irresponsible journalism.

The whole point of HITECH was and is to compel physicians and hospitals to implement EHRs in order to get rid of the paper-based medical records that have bedeviled healthcare for decades, and which have been the source of so much inefficiency and so many medical errors. Granted, it is true that one of the unintended effects of HITECH has been to further solidify the position of the EHR vendors that were already highly successful. Indeed, on a personal level, it concerns me greatly that HITECH could end up unintentionally further advantaging EHR behemoths that need no further advantages, and could end up crushing worthy smaller rivals.

Nevertheless, to imply strongly that HITECH was ever intended to be a boondoggle to EHR vendors whose senior executives gave generous donations to members of Congress completely mischaracterizes what HITECH was, and is. For perspective, Ms. Creswell could easily have noted that no other large industry in the United States remains even remotely as paper-based as healthcare does, even now, a few years into the meaningful use process; or that study after study has confirmed the benefits to patient safety, care coordination, and cost-effectiveness of the automation of patient records. Her failure to do so is troubling, and unfortunately, her article made page one of today’s Times, where it will undoubtedly be read by many thousands of laypeople who may or may not have any sense of how misguided and distorted its core thesis is.

What’s more, a disturbing pattern seems to have emerged in recent months at the Times, with regard to its coverage of EHRs. As Senior Contributing Editor David Raths notes in his blog, “Another Day, Another NY Times Story Critical of EHRs,” he has uncovered a pattern of recent Times stories implicitly critical of the whole concept of EHRs. David writes, “Just three days ago, I wrote a blog item pointing out how many New York Times articles in the past year presented a skeptical view of the transition to electronic health records from paper.” And he goes on to say, “I think this article—either intentionally or unintentionally—sets up some false cause and effect relationships for the uniformed reader. It makes no mention of why the shift to electronic records is necessary. Or why the EHR incentives were necessary because the marketplace had failed to deliver these changes without regulatory prods.”

Further, the single end-user-physician quote in the story is an unqualified slam of a major vendor’s EHR, with no balancing quotes from satisfied end-users, which compounds the article’s core problem, as it implies that most physicians hate EHRs and that they are not valuable in improving patient care or even physician workflow.

If this article and its predecessors were being published in the Podunk Gazette, it would be one thing. But the Good Gray Times has a very high responsibility, being arguably the most influential newspaper in America. I sincerely hope the editors and reporters at the Times will rethink what seems to be a core prejudice against EHRs in their future coverage.  Any publication with the power to shape public and policymaker perceptions in vital areas like this needs to get it right—yes, every time.

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