For most of my career as a family doctor, I kept track of my patients' health histories by scribbling hand-written notes in a paper chart. For a healthy child, I'd include dates when vaccines were given; for an adult with, say, diabetes, I'd make sure to jot down a recommended schedule of blood and urine tests as well as foot and eye exams. A majority of primary care physicians, in fact, still use this kind of tracking system—despite research suggesting that these handwritten flowsheets aren't just inefficient, but extremely vulnerable to errors. Some say the solution lies in simply switching to electronic medical records.
After all, paper charts don't automatically update themselves when, say, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes a new vaccine recommendation. An electronic medical record system can do that and can also allow test results to be emailed or transferred automatically into a patient's chart; paper charts rely on office administrators to input them by hand, which can lead to mistakes. I, myself, have occasionally forgotten to record that a vaccine was administered during the chaos of a busy work day. Nor did I have any systematic way of knowing how many of my patients were actually receiving the preventive and chronic care they needed.
But the latest research suggests that electronic health records don't necessarily improve care unless they include interactive features: They should make it easier for doctors to implement proven guidelines for good care, providing the necessary shots and screenings, follow-up exams and treatments to help patients live longer with chronic diseases or to prevent these diseases altogether. Ideally, these records should include a software tool that periodically culls through patients' records looking for gaps in care such as who is overdue for a cholesterol screening or flu vaccine. The system would then send out reminders to patients to come in for a test or appointment.
Kaiser Permanente added such a tool to their electronic medical record system several years ago and found that it works to improve care. A study published last month in the American Journal of Managed Care found that the support tool brought more diabetes and heart disease patients in for health screenings, vaccinations and medication adjustments. After three years, for patients with diabetes, the percentage of care recommendations met every month increased from 68 percent to 73 percent; for heart disease patients, the percentage rose from 64 percent to 71 percent. Another study found that tool helped more healthy patients get the recommended screening and exams for preventive care. Bottom line: This support tool lowers the rate of skipped appointments and gaps in care.
This is great news if you use Kaiser Permanente for medical care, but what if you don't? Well, you can probably expect to see some significant changes at your doctor's office over the next three to five years. Physicians who take advantage of government financial incentives to set up electronic medical record systems must prove they're making "meaningful use" of the data from the health records, meaning that they've improved patient care as a result. But now is a good time to ask your doctor about how your records will be handled in the future. Will a fail-safe system be implemented to ensure that you don't miss crucial office visits or screenings? If you see more than one doctor on a regular basis, find out if your primary care clinician—the one responsible for coordinating all of your care—uses a system that's compatible with the systems your specialists use. This will make it far easier to transfer test results and updates to prescriptions back and forth between various offices. Otherwise, the responsibility for keeping your medical chart up to date will fall on your shoulders. If you're not satisfied that your doctor is staying abreast of all these technological changes, you might want to consider switching to another practice.