Dr. Scott Ransom in FW Business Press

November 2, 2009

When Dr. Henry Plummer developed the concept of the "unit record" nearly 100 years ago, his idea was to place all of a patient’s records in a single file that traveled with the patient and could be stored in a central repository. His concept of medical care continuity quickly became the standard for medical record keeping around the world.

I wonder what Dr. Plummer would make of today’s adoption of electronic medical records (EMR) by U.S. health care providers? After all, the concept is basically the same, just expanded to take advantage of today’s capacious electronic storage and retrieval methods.

Even the federal government has gotten into the act, defining a complete EMR system as containing four basic functions: computerized orders for prescriptions, computerized orders for tests, reporting of test results and physician notes.

In a perfect world, an EMR system tracks a patient’s entire health and medical history in a computerized, electronic format that is accessible wherever the patient is. These records are more easily retrievable than manual systems, and can make a patient’s navigation through the healthcare system much safer and more efficient.

But it’s hardly a perfect world. Even though the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 has made the promotion of a national, interoperable health information system a priority, EMRs have not been adopted nearly as quickly in the U.S. as one might expect. Issues, including the high cost, lack of standardization, security and privacy have stood in the way of implementation.

A recent study from the New England Journal of Medicine points out that hospital EMR adoption rates are still abysmal, concluding that only about 8 percent of the 3,000 hospitals studied by researchers used even a basic EMR in a single unit, which included nurse or physician notes. And only 1.5 percent of non-federal U.S. facilities use a comprehensive EMR.

This seems counter-intuitive, especially when one considers the numerous advantages of EMRs, starting with efficiency. Information stored in an electronic format can be retrieved easily at the touch of a button or the click of a mouse. Search and retrieval times are a fraction of what they would be in manual systems. At the very least, this saves time by eliminating the need to complete the old manual medical history forms at a new physician’s office. This also reduces the chance for error when a patient forgets to list certain prescribed medications or supplements. It’s all there in one easily accessible record.

But efficiency isn’t the only benefit. For patients, access to good care becomes easier and safer when records can easily be shared. Important information — such as blood type, prescribed drugs, medical conditions and other medical history aspects — can be accounted for much more quickly. Doctors and other medical personnel can retrieve these medical records from anywhere using handheld devices like an iPhone, which allows them to continue treatment no matter where they are. And, in case of emergency, information can be shared with emergency room physicians who can then order diagnostic tests and share results online.

Another benefit is safety. Remember that old joke about a doctor’s indecipherable handwriting on prescription? It’s not funny when you consider the seriousness of medical errors caused by today’s possible powerful drug interactions. In fact, it’s estimated that nearly 98,000 patients die annually by preventable medical errors of some type. That’s like two 737s crashing every day for a whole year. It’s entirely possible that these numbers could be greatly reduced by a clearly readable prescription and/or comprehensive medical history information generated through an EMR system.

The Mayo Clinic is setting the standard for EMR implementation. With one of the largest such systems in the world, all medical documentation relating to a patient’s care – physician notes, laboratory reports, surgical dictations, copies of correspondence, appointment schedules, X-rays, ultrasounds, CT and MRI scans, echocardiograms – is instantly available to caregivers via more than 16,000 computer terminals on Mayo’s three campuses. The efficiencies created by simply typing a few identifying keystrokes to retrieve a patient’s record — as opposed to staring at thousands of file folders, filing and refiling them — saves a doctor’s practice or a hospital many thousands of dollars. That’s even taking the cost of the electronic system into account.

Even the federal government thinks electronic record keeping is important. Veterans’ hospitals across the country share an electronic system called VistA, which shares records of veterans in its health system. Should a patient find him- or herself in a VA hospital, even away from home, the hospital will have the same access to his or her records that the hometown hospital does.

It’s interesting to note that a recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Health Research Institute contends that Medicaid penalties might do more to boost EMR adoption than incentives, like available funding to physicians to purchase and implement EMRs. According to the report, "Provisions in the stimulus law that call for cuts in Medicare reimbursements, rather than a multibillion-dollar incentive program, will do more to push the adoption of electronic medical records among hospitals and doctor practices by 2015."

However EMR adoption happens, it’s critical that it happen sooner rather than later. The health care industry’s ability to provide efficient, coordinated, safe and high-quality care is only enhanced by the rapid availability of accurate data. And with the availability of solid data, researchers can also use the EMR to analyze large amounts of patient information more efficiently, speeding the application of new research findings and vastly improving patient care in the future.

Just as Dr. Plummer saw beyond the information exchange limitations of his era, we can see the benefits of using the latest technologies for the practice of continuity in 21st century medicine. But the goal, just as it was in Dr. Plummer’s time, or even going as far back as Hippocrates and his famous oath, is still nobly laudable: "First, do no harm."


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