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Shift From Paper to Electronic Medical Records: Cause for Concern?

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From banking and managing finances to shopping and ordering pizza, almost everything these days is done electronically. Not every sector of society has been quick to embrace the electronic age, however. The medical community has remained behind the digital curve.

For a long time, the medical community kept handwritten records for patients and used handwritten orders for prescriptions. Backed by a $19.5 billion boost from the stimulus package passed in February 2009, though, the medical community is slowly starting to implement digital record keeping, moving toward widespread use of electronic medical records (EMR).

The Benefits of Electronic Medical Records (EMRs)

Proponents of EMRs note that paper records can be damaged or lost, difficult to find when needed or may be missing vital information, which can lead to duplicated tests, uniformed treatment decisions and dangerous medication interactions. Additionally, many people who change doctors at some point (perhaps because of a move or change in insurance benefits) often forgot to request copies of their paper records, making it difficult to reconstruct a full medical history, nearly impossible to determine if their immunizations are current or they have a history of using a particular medication.

Potential benefits of electronic medical records include:

  • Prevention of medication errors - better documentation and an automatic check for possible drug errors and interactions
  • Automatic follow up - test results would be tracked and electronic reminders would exist to help decrease mistakes and omissions
  • Easier access - a repository of medical history would allow quick access from many locations by those that need the information. Electronic records would also allow easy transfer of information from one physician to another if a patient changes doctors.
  • "Permanent" records - information could be easily backed-up, providing an ongoing record that is safe from facility floods or fires and misplacement of paper test results

EMRs: Cause for Concern?

While there are numerous advantages to switching from paper-based to electronic medical record systems, there is always cause for concern. The disadvantages may, if not considered and mitigated, lead to patient injuries. Primary concerns include the addition of significant amounts of time to doctors' already busy schedules, which could potentially compromise patient care or lead to an increase in errors.

Other concerns about electronic medical records include:

  • Attention drawn away from patients - many computer systems require doctors to turn away from patients, which could lead to missed signs and symptoms of the patients' illnesses or be interpreted as a rude bedside manner
  • Online forms being too complex - drop down menus and check boxes may make it difficult to locate information in the system. Many EMRs are also template driven, so mistakenly choosing the wrong template could lead to substandard care, injuries and incomplete information.
  • System downtime - if a computer system was being updated or has crashed and wasn't available during emergencies, the inability to access medical history could result in patient harm
  • Security risks - too many internal system users having access or external hackers gaining unauthorized access could compromise patients' personal information
  • Data integrity - as with most electronic systems, there are the risks of lost data, inaccurate data entry or improper corrections to records, all of which can have a detrimental effect on patient treatment

After studying an existing EMR system, the Joint Committee, Senator Charles Grassley's office (R-IA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released the a list of critical errors, including:

  • A computer glitch that systematically gave adult doses of medication to children
  • Faulty software that miscalculated intracranial pressures and mixed up kilograms and pounds
  • A disconnected IT program (disconnected during an upgrade to the system) that lead to incorrect dosing
  • Five people who were misdiagnosed with herpes due to a software bug

According to Quantros Inc., data gathered from 379 hospitals, there were 133,662 medication errors in 2008. Of those, 27,969 were due in part to computers - one in five. According to the same data, paper-based errors resulted in only 10,954 errors.

Have You Been Injured by a Medical Mistake?

While EMRs bring the promise of benefits to the medical community, concerns remain. Like most new advances in technology, it will likely take a while for all potential problems to be solved.

Whether a medical provider uses EMRs or not, unfortunately, medical errors and mistakes still occur. If you or a loved one has been the injured due to the carelessness of a doctor, nurse or hospital, contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney to discuss your situation. An attorney can help you explore all of your legal options, help make sure you find the care you need, and help you seek compensation for pain and suffering, additional medical expenses, and lost earnings.