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The Rapid Growth of EMR in Healthcare

December 6, 2017

If in the past a physician was inclined to grab a pen, he now grabs a mouse. If he once scrawled a patient’s particulars on a notepad (often leading the latter to wonder just how anyone can possibly read such penmanship), he now enters the information into a computer.

Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) have gone, in short order, from novelty to necessity. Propelled in no small part by federal edict, they are now as common as a stethoscope, the hope being that their use will lead in time to better, less expensive care.

An EMR also allows medical professionals to monitor a patient’s progress and share that information with others as the situation demands — and allows the patient easy access, him- or herself, via computer, smartphone or tablet. An EMR shows when a patient is due for an examination or screening. It can help identify potential red flags.

In other words, it simplifies the entire process. No longer is it a matter of rooting through a bulging envelope and finding the proper paperwork. Now every aspect of a patient’s medical history is spelled out for doctors and nurses, and just a mouse click or two away. Important information is far less likely to fall through the cracks, and the possibility of errors in caregiving is minimized.

The human cost of such mistakes cannot be overstated. According to one report, preventable medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. That same report noted that at Seattle’s Virginia Mason Medical Center, checkbox options nearly eliminated confusing or incorrect physician orders overnight, and that nurses were able to ensure that patients received the correct amount of medication by comparing a barcode on the label of that medication with one affixed to the patient’s wristband. Both methods, the report concluded, are now widely used.

A 2015 report in U.S. News and World Report, citing a survey by the National Partnership, noted that 80 percent of adults with a regular doctor said their health-care provider used an electronic system, up from 64 percent in 2011. The same survey found that one-third of the patients whose doctor did not offer such a service were considering switching to one who did.

Besides improved safety and communication, other potential benefits of EMRs, according to the National Partnership study, were improved patient engagement — i.e., patients were more likely to take an active role in ensuring good health — as well as improved community-wide health. Health-information technology allows providers to track trends and spot disparities among their clientele. The example cited was that physicians could make patients aware of when they were due for mammograms, colonoscopies, diabetic foot exams or prostate cancer screenings.

There is also the potential for cost reduction, since easy access to (and sharing of) records allows for speedier care. It’s also less likely that an expensive tests like a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) will be repeated.

A report by the University of Scranton notes that some data-based record storage was done as far back as the mid-1960s, but that the first electronic medical record system was developed in 1972 by the Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis. According to that same report other mileposts in the march to EMRs came in 1991, when the Institute of Medicine underscored physicians’ need for computers in their practices, and 1996, when the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was passed to tackle the problems of record-keeping, privacy and security.

The Scranton report said the budget for healthcare IT projects was doubled during George W. Buch’s time as president (2001-09), and Barack Obama approved additional funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009.

The onset of EMRs has not been without glitches. One report noted that such things as physicians’ lack of experience with (and anxiety over) computers affected their implementation. Another flatly stated that EMRs aren’t working, because physicians were forced to devote more time to record-keeping than patient care — that, in fact, it was leading to burnout on the part of healthcare providers.

It is nonetheless clear that EMRs are here to stay.

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