A matter of life and death

From paper to digital: revolutionizing health records

It seems intuitive in this day and age that we have electronic health records. Most of us assume our medical records are digitized to save us time down the road and help our doctors track our medical history. Americans would probably be surprised that a mere 14 percent of doctors in the United States use electronic medical records.

Jennifer and Randy Queen are all too familiar with the issues of both types of recording-keeping. In 1997 they welcomed their daughter Courtney into the world. Courtney was born with DiGeorge Syndrome, a rare disease caused by a large deletion from chromosome 22. Evident at birth, DiGeorge causes medical problems with the cardiac, pulmonary, endocrine, and immune systems. Courtney spent the first six months of her life in the hospital. At 10 years old, she had been hospitalized approximately 24 times and had undergone more than 400 medical procedures.

For the first years of Courtney’s treatments at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, the hospital relied on the typical paper medical records. The Queens maintained their own medical notes for Courtney and constantly transported them to various medical facilities. With no easy way to provide her medical history in the case of an emergency, they would have to explain Courtney’s situation all over again. This made the family reluctant to travel.

Even at Vanderbilt, the Queens constantly completed new forms and repeated information. The problems with this record-keeping system were never more evident than when a procedure was delayed for more than four hours while doctors and nurses waited for Courtney’s lengthy file to arrive from another hospital floor. Finally, the records arrived thanks to an aide transporting the soaring stack of papers and manila folders on a wheelchair.

In 2005 Vanderbilt moved into new facilities featuring an advanced health IT infrastructure. The buildings and medical departments are now connected through a single computerized electronic medical record system. “Now, as long as we stay in the Vandy-zone, all of our information is available at the click of a button,” Jennifer Queen said.

Unlike Vanderbilt, most facilities systems’ are still paper-based and force doctors to waste thousands of hours and billions of dollars every year on redundant tests and duplicative history-taking. Digitized health records could catch doctors up with even their newest patients in a matter of minutes and guide them toward more efficient, useful, and cost-effective time management.

Health IT does more than just speed the check-in process for a patient. The information available through Vanderbilt’s health IT system contains Courtney Queen’s medications and test results. It also contains specific details about the type of care she requires, down to the level of difficulty she has with IV sticks, which is recalled instantly. Today, the Queens’ know the medical personnel in every department understand Courtney needs a special IV and no longer worry if the doctor or nurse has the information they require to effectively help Courtney.

The value of digitized health records, like Vanderbilt’s, is not lost on health care policy makers. Legislation has been introduced in Congress and momentum appears to be building for the federal government to take a leadership role in the transition from paper medical records to health IT, which would allow more health facilities to convert to health IT.

Due to the multitude of digitizing programs available, American doctors have been reluctant to make the switch to digitalized records – as opposed to 90 percent of doctors in Sweden and 60 percent in the United Kingdom. The key concern about health It is that of patient privacy and fears that unauthorized computer hackers would be able to access and see personal health information. To that, advocates of health IT note that there is often nothing stopping unauthorized persons from looking at paper medical records.

Another challenge is that of health care providers, even those with online records, having systems that can communicate from provider to provider. That seems to be a bigger challenge, as different health care providers don’t always have compatible technology.

Federal leadership can establish interoperable standards and create the incentives necessary for doctors, hospitals and insurance companies to move toward electronic records, and integrate health IT into government health programs. This would allow every family to feel the same ease in any medical facility that the Queens feel at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “We’ve seen firsthand what an amazing difference electronic medical records can make to a family’s life. These technologies should be available to everyone,” Jennifer Queen said. It is time for Washington to take a cue and place health IT at the top of our national agenda.

Source: Health IT Now! Coalition

Editor’s note: Although many Minnesota health care providers still do not provide online records and customer accessibility to their own records online, there are a number of options available for those seeking the convenience of having personal health records online. Some web site providers offer clients the option of downloading personal medical files. Others require that information be keyboarded in.

The digitized records can include everything from one’s complete medical history to daily medication schedules. These provide an invaluable service to the disability community, their family members and medical service providers. Both Google and MSN have launched password-protected sites where users can post or download their own medical information. MSN’s HealthVault service, www.healthvault.com launched in fall 2007, Google Health launched a few months later at www.google.com. Other sites to check out include www.healthrecordsonline.com and www.ihealthrecord.org