Patient Records in the Digital Age

In the age of Facebook and Twitter, when all information appears to be easily accessible with a few clicks of the mouse, most people might be shocked to realize that some of the most important information of all, our medical records, lag far behind the modern electronic standard. An electronic medical record, or EMR, is exactly what it sounds like: patient information in electronic form, as opposed to a written chart or a paper file. While digitizing the actual record isn't generally a problem, sharing those records between systems, and between doctors, is definitely an issue.

Where most industries share large amounts of electronic data with ease and speed, the healthcare industry still depends on outdated means of transmission, such as paper printouts of electronic records and fax machines. Many of the electronic records systems installed in hospitals and doctors' offices cannot communicate with the systems in other offices, resulting in a need to duplicate electronic information from one system into another.

Jonathan Bush, who runs athenahealth, a company in the electronic medical records space, describes watching the process of transferring patient records from a hospital to a nursing home:

"These two guys then type — I kid you not — the printout from the brand new EMR into their EMR, so that their fax server can fax it to the bloody nursing home."

While this may seem comical, the reality is that the inefficiencies of the records systems create a burden that falls squarely on the shoulders of the administration staff of medical facilities, adding a layer of meticulous data entry to their already busy schedules.

The problem stems from the taxpayer-funded wide scale installation of these medical records systems. In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) included $30 billion dollars in funds as an incentive for health care providers to implement electronic health record (EHR) technology systems. Unfortunately, the ARRA funding did not come with EHR technology system guidelines, resulting in vastly different systems springing up from multiple EHR system designers. In addition to the systems' communication problems, some believe there is a financial incentive to keeping those records systems from easily transmitting information between facilities, as doctors who do not have specific records can then bill for additional tests.

The federal government believes it's time for a change. Dr. Karen DeSalvo, the federal government's health IT coordinator, is stepping in and setting some much-needed standards on how to share EMR information. The incentive for this new EHR system reform is money, this time the billions of dollars the government pays to Medicare providers each year. Medicare payments to doctors and hospitals who work together are going up. This cooperation hinges upon open communication – meaning easy and effortless transmission of electronic medical records from one system to another.

The changes, voluntary or otherwise, couldn't come at a better time. Across the board, healthcare staff, including doctors and administrators, report extreme dissatisfaction with EHR systems. According to the Q3 2014 Black Book EHR Loyalty survey, 92% of nurses are fed up with the current state of affairs. Hopefully Dr. DeSalvo's efforts will provide some relief to overworked medical staff as well as increase the efficiency of patient care.

Health IT: Interoperability Roadmap
Center for Disease Control
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
National Public Radio
National Center for Policy Analysis: Here's What Interoperability Looks Like
Health IT: 2012 Highlights and Accomplishments
National Center for Policy Analysis: Dissatisfied with Electronic Health Records

About the Author
Iris Stone began her writing career as a freelance writer and researcher in 2011. Her business soon took off and she now owns and operates a writing and editing firm that works with clients all across the country. Despite the time it takes to run a business she still does much of the writing herself, and her work has included a variety of content related to education, medicine, healthcare careers, and science. Her interests actually span far beyond writing, and she is currently studying to be a physicist! Check out her Google+ Profile.

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