According to a statement released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in May of this year, more than 50% of doctors are now using electronic health records (EHR) in their practices. Like any kind of technology, the EHR has its supporters and its critics. But like it or not, digitally tracking every detail related to a patient’s health is here to stay. The hope is that the widespread use of EHRs will improve efficiency, reduce medical errors, help hold down healthcare costs, and improve the quality of healthcare. But how can a computer system improve quality? Consider these features and benefits of EHR systems.
- Everyone can read what is displayed clearly on a computer screen; not everyone can decipher a doctor’s handwriting. It’s been a long-running joke that physicians possess a scrawl that is difficult to read, but it’s not at all funny when a prescription is filled incorrectly or a nurse in an ER can’t accurately interpret an order in a patient’s chart. Sadly, handwriting may be going the way of the horse-drawn plow, but the upside is that mistakes made during the delivery of medical care will be reduced as a result.
- With the use of EHRs, gone are the days when medical assistants spend their time calling radiology departments and laboratories to track down test results and then waiting by the fax machine for those results to appear so that they can file them into a paper chart. As more practices become connected with one another and with hospitals, physicians and their support staff can quickly and easily find the information they need to provide timely medical care simply by stepping in front of the nearest computer screen.
- With an EHR system, every chart is organized in exactly the same way. Ideally, paper charts are also consistent from one to the other in terms of what’s filed where, but anyone who has thumbed through a paper record three times before finding a needed chest x-ray report that was buried in with lab documentation knows that “organized” is a relative term. In addition, using an EHR essentially eliminates the possibility that diagnostic study results will be lost or accidentally filed in another patient’s chart, two events that put patients in danger and practices at risk for lawsuits.
- EHRs are accessible from anywhere, which means that when doctors receive after-hours calls from patients, they can access everything from someone’s latest blood pressure reading to their medication list to reports from a recent hospitalization. No more trying to remember or relying on what the patient remembers when directing care while away from the office.
- An EHR can identify patients who are due for preventive care such as mammograms, colonoscopies, immunizations, and other potentially life-saving diagnostic studies or treatments. Prior to the use of EHRs, it was far too easy for this important information to fall through the cracks. Now, at the touch of a button, a physician or medical assistant can see within seconds who among their patient population is due for health maintenance.
It’s easy to see how EHR systems have the potential to improve patient care, but they’re only as good as their users. Physicians and office staff still need to remain vigilant about entering accurate information into patient records and, if they are to achieve the full benefit of the digital age of healthcare, everyone involved must learn to confidently use the features that the programs include. If you have not yet implemented an EHR system in your practice, evaluate vendors carefully before jumping in and keep quality-of-care issues top-of-mind while making your assessment.