Electronic Medical Records are Worth the Growing Pains

Photo: Discovery News 2012
Photo: Discovery News 2012

The implementation of electronic medical records (EMRs) has become a hot-button topic in the medical arena. This New York Times article published in October nicely lays out both sides of the ongoing debate.

The fact that EMRs have the ever-elusive bi-partisan support, and wide industry support as well, makes them seem fail-safe; but the complicated initiative brings up a number of hurdles ranging from privacy concerns to the new maze of questions and options doctors must navigate for each patient.  Some of the biggest concerns (challenges which all digital databases face) are vulnerability to crashes and hacking.  Hospitals will have to create contingency plans for how to access records if the system fails, and systems must come equipped with major privacy and anti-hacking mechanisms. The biggest complaint from the doctors’ side is that the interfaces are not completely user-friendly and were seemingly created with little input from doctors themselves.  The databases can be awkward, often not quite fitting exactly what the doctors need.  And clicking through all of the questions and menus is often time consuming resulting in the physician spending more time interacting with the computer instead of the patient.  As one doctor put it in a Wall Street Journal article, “it seems as if this is all about taking care of the chart, as opposed to taking care of the patient. Documentation is important, but the pointing and clicking and cutting and pasting we are so focused on in demonstrating meaningful use of EMR may be getting in the way of meaningful encounters with our patients.”

There are definitely growing pains that come with implementing an EMR system, but in my view the benefits far outweigh any initial difficulties.  New equipment and protocols always take getting used to, but the value of having an individual’s entire medical history on record is immeasurable.  These digital records offer tremendous convenience when it comes to refilling a prescription, scheduling an appointment, or even emailing your doctor a quick question, rather than having to make a phone call or wait for an appointment.

A recent Huffington Post article details a prime example of how one individual used his EMR online system to get a hold of prescription information he needed while traveling abroad.  I actually have personal access to the PAMF My Health Online site he refers to in the article and can confirm how helpful it is.  Not only is it a luxury to have easy access to all of your medical information, but in the end, I believe it results in better care for patients.  If someone is taken to the ER, even a doctor who has never worked with that patient before can pull up his or her entire medical history, allowing for easier diagnosis and better treatment.  Having that wealth of information on hand for all doctors’ visits ensures that nothing is missed, and ultimately improves the quality of care.

Our home state of Massachusetts, often looked to as a pioneer in the healthcare arena, has been taking steps forward to make easy access to medical records a reality.  It recently launched its Health Information Exchange, inaugurated by Governor Deval Patrick ceremoniously sending his records from a hospital in Boston to one in Springfield.  The program began with the participation of nine healthcare providers, including Partners Healthcare, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Network Health, and now has “over 40 organizations that are in our pipeline to bring on board,” reported Laurance Stuntz, director of the Mass HIE, in a recent Healthcare IT News interview.

From my millennial perspective, it seems ludicrous not to have such important data electronically recorded somewhere.  I understand there are imperfections in the new system, but if the only source of information I have on my vaccine history is that little piece of yellow cardstock that has been following me since my early childhood – that seems incredibly inadequate.  I envision the transition to digital health records will be much like the switch to online banking.  Initially people feared having personal financial information on the web, but now couldn’t imagine not to being able to pay their bills online or check their account balance on their phone.

There is always a “breaking-in” period when a major overhaul happens, especially when it involves a system that has been in place for decades. Kinks always take a little time to work their way out of new software, but medical records, and the quality care that will come from easy-access to them, are too valuable to keep stored in file cabinets.

Lucy Muscarella is a Consultant at Greenough. Follow her on Twitter: @lucymuscarella