There is a sudden spill of icy anxiety down your spine as you pick up your phone in your shaking hands. It’s 6 p.m.; your doctor’s office is closed. You open the message, and your worst fears are confirmed ... the cancer is back.
Or is it? You’re not sure. The biopsy sure sounds bad. But you’re an English teacher, not a doctor, and you spend the rest of the night Googling words like “tubulovillous” and “high-grade dysplasia.” You sit awake, terrified in front of the computer screen desperately trying to make sense of the possibly life-changing results. You wish you knew someone who could help you understand; you consider calling your doctor’s emergency line, or your cousin who is an ophthalmologist – anybody who can help you make sense of the results.
Or imagine another scenario: you’re a trans teen who has asked your doctor to refer to you by your preferred pronouns. You’re still presenting as your birth sex, in part because your family would disown you if they knew, and you’re not financially or emotionally ready for that step. You feel proud of yourself for advocating for your needs to your long-time physician, and excited about the resources they’ve included in your after visit summary and the referrals they’d made to gender-confirming specialists.
When you get home, you are confronted with a terrible reality that your doctor’s notes, orders, and recommendations are immediately viewable to anybody with your MyChart login – your parents knew the second your doctor signed the note. They received the notification, logged on as your guardians, and you have effectively been “outed” by the physician who took and oath to care for you and who you trusted implicitly.
How the Cures Act is affecting patients
While these examples may sound extreme, they are becoming more and more commonplace thanks to a recently enacted 21st Century Cures Act. The act was originally written to improve communication between physicians and patients. Part of the act stipulates that nearly all medical information – from notes to biopsies to lab results – must be available within 24 hours, published to a patient portal and a notification be sent to the patient by phone.
Oftentimes, this occurs before the ordering physician has even seen the results, much less interpreted them and made a plan for the patient. What happens now, not long after its enactment date, when it has become clear that the Cures Act is causing extreme harm to our patients?
Take, for example, the real example of a physician whose patient found out about her own intrauterine fetal demise by way of an EMR text message alert of “new imaging results!” sent directly to her phone. Or a physician colleague who witnessed firsthand the intrusive unhelpfulness of the Cures Act when she was informed via patient portal releasing her imaging information that she had a large, possibly malignant breast mass. “No phone call,” she said. “No human being for questions or comfort. Just a notification on my phone.”
The stories about the impact of the Cures Act across the medical community are an endless stream of anxiety, hurt, and broken trust. The relationship between a physician and a patient should be sacred, bolstered by communication and mutual respect.
In many ways, the new act feels like a third party to the patient-physician relationship – a digital imposter, oftentimes blurting out personal and life-altering medical information without any of the finesse, context, and perspective of an experienced physician.