April 21, 2018
Nurse Showing Patient Test Results On Digital Tablet
Be Well

The Case for Electronic Medical Records

by John Swartzberg, M.D.  

Among the biggest, and most exciting, changes coming to the health-care system are those in­­volving how we create, store, and share medical information about patients.

Electronic medical records, or EMRs, are computerized records that can be shared by doctors, hospitals, and patients. Computers (or at least the full appreciation of them) have come late to most medical practices. Paper still dominates, and record keeping at many offices and hospitals is a hodgepodge. Most doctors I know have excellent memories, but they sometimes misplace files or forget important information. What if it’s your information that’s lost? Also, what if you need emergency care far from home, and the doctor, nurse, or technician trying to save your life has no idea which medications you’re taking and what illnesses you have? That’s one obvious situation where readily available EMRs come in handy.

Here’s another way EMRs can be very helpful. A friend of mine told me about helping her sister, who was facing surgery. They were in the surgeon’s office, and he was able to pull up information from the multiple specialists who needed to have input before the procedure. “It was a blessing that her records were posted electronically and could be sent from doctor to doctor, plus we could see the MRI scan on his screen as he explained what was going to happen.”

I see other benefits, too. It’s a longstanding joke that no one can read a doctor’s handwriting. Well, it’s no joke: Illegible prescriptions result in countless adverse effects and even deaths. A comprehensive EMR system can help prevent such errors, as well as provide up-to-date information about drug allergies and potential drug interactions and contraindications.

EMRs should make health care better, safer, and more efficient. The system can send out alerts when it’s time for patients to have key medical tests or vaccines, and even help track population-wide trends. But it will take a decade or more to fully implement this complex technology. There will be many bumps in the road. Privacy issues will have to be addressed. Then there are the technical hurdles. Currently, EMRs are not user-friendly; it takes a lot of time and effort to enter and manage information. And for EMRs to fulfill our needs, they must be operating in a fully integrated system—something that is not widely available yet in this country.

I’m also concerned that computers in the exam room get in the way of doctor-patient communication. It’s not very comforting to be telling a doctor intimate details about your body while he or she is typing away and staring at a computer screen.

In the end, however, I believe these changes will benefit all of us in ways we are just starting to understand.

Also see Accessing Your Medical Records.