There are both advantages and disadvantages to electronic medical records, although many argue that positive aspects outweigh the negatives. Even though the investment in this type of system is at first costly, most argue that over time, this cost will result in greater savings for both medical professionals and health insurance companies. It also takes a great deal of time to get paper records converted into electronic ones, but those records are much easier to track and search once this has been completed. Everyone who uses these records must be using compatible systems, however, or none of the information can be shared.
Keeping medical records in an electronic form can save a great deal of space. Instead of storing huge paper files on patients, all records are digital and stored on hard drives and/or in external data centers. This represents a small percentage of the space required to store physical records. In addition, although they do not make an office completely paper-free, electronic records do reduce the amount of paper needed by medical offices, hospitals, and insurance companies.
Another advantage of electronic medical records is the ability for all members of a health care team to coordinate patient care. This helps avoid unnecessary repeat tests, prevents medicines that might interact badly from being prescribed, and allow anyone on the medical team to understand the approaches taken to treat a condition. A person with complex health issues may see several specialists, and can easily become confused by overlapping or contrary advice. When specialists and primary care doctors use the same system, then everyone on the team should be aware of all the other team members’ actions and recommendations.
Electronic records may save time as well. While records in the past could be faxed or emailed, in many cases, there was generally a wait time. When a medical professional has instant access to all of a patient’s information, including things like X-rays, lab tests, and information about prescriptions or allergies, he or she is empowered to act right away. This may be particularly helpful in emergency situations where a patient cannot answer questions about his or her medical history due to extreme illness or injury.
Many healthcare professionals have handwriting that may be difficult to read, and though this is a generalization, unclear writing can lead to mistakes. Typed information is less likely to create confusion. Electronic medical records do not rule out the occasional typo, however, which can also have serious consequences. Of course, someone also has to input all of a patient's old information into the system, which can take a significant amount of time and could add more errors to the records. A doctor may also need to take additional time out of his or her busy schedule to review this data.
In fact, one concern about the use of electronic medical records is that medical professionals may have a significant learning curve when these programs are first employed. A poor typist may actually take a long time to input new information. Doctors often have to be their own medical clerks especially during an office visit, and one who is distracted by confusing technology may not be as alert to a patient’s symptoms or needs.
There is no single source or system for electronic medical records in most places, so different hospitals and individual clinicians are not all using the same program. This erases the benefit of instant information for all on the medical team, since one program may not mesh with another.
Some patients express concern that digital records might be hacked and exploited by others. Since one of the first considerations of medical treatment is confidentiality, it may remain concerning just how many people might have access to all of a person's medical records. The misuse of private medical information could create problems for those who have conditions they wish to keep private.
Despite these concerns, many medical professionals and hospitals are now attempting to convert their records to electronic form. It remains unclear how long it will take for old files with long medical histories to be updated, however. It's also not clear when or if it will be possible for the different systems to communicate with one another.