Medical records: the digital movement to convert paper documents gets a boost

Most everyone agrees that getting doctors to convert paper health records to a digital system makes a ton of sense. Physicians could immediately pull up your lab data, scans, medical allergies, and other key information on the spot -- regardless of whether you're just seeing your regular physician or you're on an ER operating table.

Problem is, these systems don't come cheap. A September 2005 study in Health Affairs calculated an average cost of about $44,000 per physician to install an electronic health-records system -- not including any ongoing maintenance costs. But the barriers to adoption may finally be falling.
A $400 million grant program announced this week would provide up to $40,000 to New York–area physicians over five years to implement electronic health records. The North Shore–Long Island Jewish Health System program seeks to automate inpatient and outpatient records in all medical settings, including 13 hospitals. "No comparably sized hospital system in the country is providing this level of financial assistance to so many physicians to integrate an electronic health record," says Robert Williams, director of Deloitte Healthcare Consulting.

The move is one small positive step in a nationwide effort to wire up doctors and hospitals -- an effort President Obama says he supports. Small physicians offices treat about half of the patients in the United States, yet only 17 percent report using electronic records, according to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine. And experts call the lack of communication and coordination among doctors, specialists, and hospital systems one of the biggest problems in our health system.

Between 2004 and 2006, as many as 238,337 deaths in the U.S. were potentially preventable, according to healthcare rating company HealthGrades. Some could have been avoided with electronic health records, which could more easily flag patients with other underlying conditions or who could experience dangerous drug interactions. There have been similar incentive programs to move physicians into the paperless age. In June 2008, Medicare announced a $150 million grant to help 1,200 small physician practices in 12 cities switch to electronic records.

The North Shore–LIJ system plans to roll out its system this fall. As part of the program, "automated care guides" will "improve clinical care, prevent illness, and avoid medical and drug errors," the health system says. Powered by health-care software company Allscripts (MDRX), the system will be subsidized by up to 85 percent for doctors who agree to share their performance data, so it can be compared against national standards for superior care and outcomes. Doctors may also be eligible for up to $44,000 in additional federal stimulus money over five years for the electronic health record project.

"With this initiative, North Shore–LIJ is ensuring that physicians across the entire market area it serves not only have immediate access to the latest care guidelines, as well as access to patient information from every care setting, whether it's their own office, the emergency room, or another clinic in town," says Glen Tullman, CEO of Allscripts.

That sounds promising, but for electronic health records to be truly effective, they will eventually have to be rolled out across the nation as part of an integrated system. (If you're a North Shore–LIJ patient with drug allergies who needs emergency care in California, you'll need an electronic health-records system that can communicate beyond a local or regional network.)

There's good news and bad news. There is a government-led initiative designed to encourage a patchwork of electronic health record systems -- a "network of networks" -- that could be stitched together once standards have been agreed upon. But the bad news is, building the Nationwide Health Information Network, as it's called, could cost as much as $276 billion over 10 years, according to the Health Affairs. And this being a government initiative, it's nowhere close to meeting the goal of completion by 2014.

That said, news of the latest grant program suggests large health systems increasingly understand the benefit of getting all of America's hospitals, doctors officers, pharmacies, patients, and others wired. A separate study released on Thursday said that 76 percent of healthcare executives now believe their biggest asset over the next five years will be the health trend data that electronic health records can provide, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. The California-based Kaiser Permanente health system, as one example, determined that the pain drug Vioxx increased the risk of heart attacks by combing through its electronic health record system, leading to the drug's removal from the market in 2004.

"Physicians are committed to providing the best possible care for their patients," Tullman says. "But to deliver, they need just the right information at just the right time."

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About two years ago I was working at a care center for the elderly where they did everything on paper. Eventually they realized that by switching to digital records things would run much smoother. At first it was tough to get used to doing everything on the computer, but it ended up working great.

Mia |

April 08 2014 at 3:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John Howard

I have an uncle who works on making sure that the medical records are easier to access. I think he writes the programs that make medical records available. I think he has a pretty cool job.

April 01 2014 at 4:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My uncle is a podiatrist (foot doctor), and his office recently went to all electronic records. I was able to help in the process of scanning all of his patient files, and even though it was alot of work, it has paid off big time. His assistant use tablets, and are able to pull up files, x-rays, billing information, etc, all in one place. It has certainly streamlined his practice, and he has been able to take on more clients as a result.


March 17 2014 at 4:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Katy Sewell

I think that switching from paper to electronic paperwork is a great idea!! I've had asthma and allergies my whole life, and I can't imagine how the doctors and nurses are able to keep track of all of my paperwork. For patients with extensive medical records like me, going electronic is a wonderful idea!

March 13 2014 at 4:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John Howard

I think this is going to take a really long time to do this. I think it would be pretty hard to go from paper to digital, but once it is done it is going to be really useful. This is pretty interesting stuff. Thanks for the great information about it.

February 06 2014 at 6:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dedras Jasonian

Converting all medical documents from paper to digital form is definitely a big undertaking, but it will help doctors treat their patients so much more effectively in the future. It's amazing the way technology affects lives.

February 04 2014 at 7:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have heard about a company close by that works in this field. They try to make all medical records digital so that you can access them online. I think it is a very cool and interesting business idea.

January 28 2014 at 4:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lyla Burns

I have worked for many dentists in my time and they have all said that they would love to have digital records vs paper records. It would take up much less space and it would be a lot easier to keep track of everything in the computer. Hopefully this movement will be made in the near future!

June 04 2012 at 1:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is all well and good, but is the government also going to provide grants to cover lost wages for the thousands of medical transcribers nationwide who will be out of work due to the conversion to digital?

February 12 2011 at 1:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply