Recently my doctor’s assistant asked whether I wanted to pay a nominal fee to convert my health history into an electronic record. My first reaction was a negative one. After all, I didn’t want my medical information available to anyone who could hack into it. But the more I learned about a computerized medical record, the more it seemed like a sound idea. Soon I may have no choice. One of President Obama’s stated health-care goals is "utilization of an electronic health record for each person in the United States by 2014." So get ready.
Having your medical records computerized and stored electronically rather than in paper files, promises to reduce medical errors including prescribing the wrong medications. (FYI: The National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine estimates between 44,000 and 98,000 people in the United States die each year because of errors such as being prescribed medicine to which they are allergic.) In addition, a physician making a referral could, depending on the system’s interactivity with other health-card providers, forward a patient's complete medical records with a single keystroke. This could reduce the wait time for an appointment. And if done with care, electronic records could eliminate duplication of services and ultimately save money. An electronic system can also provide easier access for patients to see their own records.
What’s the negative side to electronic records? For one, the present electronic record system is time consuming and costly. For example, a few years ago, after spending $34 million on a computerized system, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in California, stopped using it after only three months. The problem? It proved to be slow, unwieldy, and too complicated. Technicians spent up to thirty minutes checking boxes about a patient's condition rather than three minutes scribbling notes.
Then there’s the privacy issue. In order for the records to be readily available and accessible they would have to be linkable and searchable. If medical records fell into the wrong hands at worst they could be used for devious purposes; minimally advertisers might flood our email inboxes with even more spam. Plus, patients may not feel so comfortable having an honest conversation with their doctor if it could end up for all to see.
Right now, it looks like creating electronic records is voluntary – and you can opt out. Before making any decision, you might want to carefully consider the pros and cons.
Robin Westen is ThirdAge’s medical reporter. Check for her daily updates.
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