The Promise and Perils of Electronic Medical Records

Electronic medical records (EMRs) provide substantially more medical safety and negligence prevention than do the paper, handwritten medical records of the pre-computer age — so much so that Congress authorized $27 billion in government grants for hospitals to modernize. Yet, when the American Hospital Association surveyed 3,101 hospitals last year, it found that only about 12 percent had adopted at least basic electronic medical records, and just 2 percent qualify for the incentives, which are scheduled to arrive next year.

The delay in adopting digital record systems is hardly surprising, says Ashish Jha, who led a study of the situation published by the online journal Health Affairs. Jha points to two main causes of the delay: The Great Recession, which stifled economic activity, and the difficulty of raising money for capital investments before anyone knew what the government requirements would be. (The rules were not finalized till last summer.)

Moreover, says Jha, implementation is itself a slow, complicated task, requiring hospitals to customize software and procedures for millions of patients. He forecast "an uptick in 2010 and an even bigger one in 2011. But are we going from 2% to 40%? No. We might go from 2% to 5% [in 2010] to 15% or 20% in 2011."

Benefits of Going Digital

However, the benefits of EMRs make the wait worthwhile. Going digital with medical records will help increase safety and improve patient care by:

  • Reducing medical errors caused by hand-scrawled prescriptions, notes, and other records
  • Providing doctors with adverse-drug-interaction alerts
  • Informing pharmacists of generic alternatives to prescribed medications (some electronic recordkeeping systems can even recommend treatments)
  • Enabling immediate access to complete records with a PC or internet-enabled phone, at any time and often from any location
  • Backing up charts accurately and safely, eliminating the danger of loss, theft, and destruction by fire or other hazards
  • Producing better data needed for statistics reports, drug recalls, patient marketing, and research
  • Facilitating compliance with industry and government regulations

Privacy Concerns

EMRs do have certain drawbacks, among them the risk of record hacking, the lessening of face-to-face contact between doctor and patient, and a steep learning curve for new users. But few health professionals think the indecipherable scribbles of yesteryear will remain for long.