Most people reading this probably grew up in an age of paper medical records, handwritten prescriptions, and faxed or mailed test results. A common sight at many doctor’s office visits was a wall of patient folders containing just this type of information, all alphabetized and labeled with little colored tabs. However, to younger readers, and what will certainly be the case for your children, this system of managing your health care information will look like it belongs in a museum. In a world where you can do everything from book, to pay your taxes, and even order a taxi online, the idea of relying on paper documents to organize important elements of your healthcare and also one of the largest industries in the United States seems antiquated.
For decades now, health care providers have talked about the shift from paper-based medical records. Today, electronic medical record systems are finally becoming more mainstream. This is a trend that has been growing over the past 10 years but that has significantly expanded since 2009, when President Obama launched the “Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act” – an incentive package to encourage hospitals and providers to adopt electronic medical records. To date, the stimulus package has provided billions of dollars to over one hundred thousand eligible hospitals and eligible providers who have demonstrated adoption, called “meaningful use,” of certified EHR technology. Progress is being made, for example, a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that the number of hospitals using some type of EMR has tripled in the last three years, bringing the total usage up to 44 percent of US hospitals.
The transition away from paper-based systems to electronic medical records, however, has not been easy, or quick. Part of the problem has less to do with technology and more to do with culture. Implementing an EMR system means that medical providers and other hospital staff have to go about their work differently than in a paper-based environment. Implementing an EMR invariably has an effect on clinical process since a new layer is being added between the patient and physician and how the physician is recording the patient’s information and formulating a plan of care.
Implementing an EMR might be challenging, but the rewards are sizable and they go beyond the financial incentives, which by the way will turn into penalties in the form of reduced Medicare payments for hospitals and providers who have not adopted the technology by a certain point. EMR systems help providers improve patient care. By allowing doctors and nurses to quickly access and view a patient’s medical records, EMRs empower them to make diagnoses with more information that is rapidly available such as a list of a patient’s allergies or a list of medications he or she is currently taking. Furthermore, EMRs can enable patients to have more control over their interactions with their health care providers, from being able to make appointments online, long after the hospital closes, to ordering prescription refills, obtaining their test results or paying a bill. One study found that patients at health providers using EMR systems were more satisfied with their doctors than patients at providers using paper systems. In that study, eighty-two percent of patients that used EMR systems also believed that they received better care.
EMRs can also help hospitals and doctors make fewer mistakes. Medical errors are a major concern for both health care providers and patients. At their best, errors waste health care resources — both time and money, at their worse, errors can injure or even kill patients through the misapplication of treatments.
The real benefit of electronic medical record systems is not in the technology, but in the value of the knowledge they provide. By providing doctors with more complete patient records, hospitals with more complete health usage data, and patients with more complete diagnosis and treatment information, the entire health care system improves. But achieving this cannot be done alone; it requires a real partnership between health care providers and technology companies with experience in the healthcare field, like Siemens.
Nobody can know for certain how the digital revolution will change health care. However, electronic medical records are one area where technology can have a real impact on the lives of health professionals and their patients.