Smarter decision-making. By looking at information from thousands of patients (much easier to do with computers than by collating paper reports), health researchers can identify which treatments work best, and EHR systems incorporate that information to help your doctor treat you. For example, the EHR used at Brigham and Women's recommends medication dosages based on the patient's level of kidney function as determined by lab tests. "That has really improved the safety of giving medication," Bates says, noting that the hospital has cut half a day, on average, from the hospital stays of patients who have renal issues.
Avoiding errors. EHRs aren't infallible, though experts agree that merely removing physician handwriting from the process improves accuracy and reliability. Still, providers are learning how to avoid the mistakes that can occur via computer: an incorrect drug chosen from a pull-down menu, the wrong choice made on a checklist, information for one patient entered into another's record. A recent Institute of Medicine study on the safety of health information technology found only anecdotal evidence of these types of problems, but it made recommendations for regulating the development of medical software and monitoring its safe use. Patients can help by keeping tabs on their own electronic data and quizzing their providers if something seems wrong.
Protecting privacy. Though some may worry about the security of patient portals, experts say accessing your health information online is no more risky than using online banking. In 2009, the Department of Health and Human Services started requiring providers to report all potential privacy breaches of personal health information, whether accidental or deliberate. Since then over 57,000 have been reported, of which more than 400 affected 500 individuals or more. (The largest one so far, a theft of data tapes from a contractor for the Defense Department's healthcare system, involved almost 5 million patient records.) However, only about 7 percent of the major breaches were attributed to online break-ins. Almost half resulted from stolen laptops, computers, and other electronic devices. Paper records represented roughly one in four major breaches.
Patients also bear some responsibility to protect their privacy, says Lygeia Ricciardi, acting director of the Office of Consumer eHealth, which is part of HHS. She learned this herself recently when she applied for life insurance and her broker asked for details about the recent birth of her child—which she hadn't mentioned. She asked where he was getting his information and he said, "You're on Twitter."
"I realized I had made some reference to getting back from maternity leave," she says, noting that, like most people, she has learned to be more careful about what she puts on social media.