"Getting hospitals to start using EHRs is critical," says Ashish Jha, associate professor of health policy and management at Harvard. "Paper-based medical records lead to hundreds of thousands of errors each year in American hospitals and probably contribute to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. This is not acceptable. There is overwhelming evidence that EHRs can help, yet the expense and the disruption that implementing these systems can cause has forced many hospitals to move slowly."
One well-known reason for adopting EHR systems is that they could enable health professionals to access a patient's medical history anytime, anywhere. Such access would even be available to a doctor treating a patient who needs emergency care while far away from home.
In addition, Spooner says computerized systems can alert doctors immediately when a patient's lab results indicate something abnormal, allowing caregivers to act quickly to prevent complications. And some systems can compile patient data onto dashboards at hospital nurses' stations, so the nurses can see all information at once, rather than having to check charts room by room.
Analytics for Healthcare
Experts say that an even more powerful use of electronic records would be to analyze large groups of patients, track trends, identify best practices and determine the best treatments. "That's the ultimate goal: to discover patterns in the population you wouldn't otherwise," says David Muntz, CIO at Baylor Health Care System in Dallas.
That's the goal, but we're far from it because of problems with data sharing, says Timothy Stettheimer, regional CIO at St. Vincent's Health System in Birmingham, Ala., and chairman of the board of trustees of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives.
Not all healthcare providers have electronic records, many organizations can't share their records with other facilities unless they're affiliated with one another, and even those that can share with others outside their networks often have translation problems because there's no single data standard to facilitate the smooth transfer of information.
"That's one of the things we're struggling with -- the vocabularies, diagnostic codes, nomenclatures. There are a lot of them, and we're trying to bring them together," Stettheimer says. "There are a lot of efforts going on to create the ability to share information, but we're not there yet."
Timeline: Healthcare Reform and IT
1967-1973: The earliest electronic medical record systems are developed at the University of Vermont, Intermountain Healthcare in Utah, the Regenstrief Institute in Indiana, Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco, and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
1991: An Institute of Medicine report calls for computerization of patient records by the year 2000.