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EMRs and the Paperless Medical Office

Posted on October 31, 2011 I Written By

Priya Ramachandran is a Maryland based freelance writer. In a former life, she wrote software code and managed Sarbanes Oxley related audits for IT departments. She now enjoys writing about healthcare, science and technology.

From the American Medical Association comes a recent story on EMRs and the paperless medical office. I think it touches quite effectively on the issue facing medical offices today – transitioning new patients to the new EMR has proved a lot easier than turning older paper records electronic. In one of my earlier posts, I’d written about this topic. This article provides some clever strategies in identifying which paper records to convert earlier than others.

Among the points discussed:
EMR use does not equal paperless: And yet, these two ideas somehow seem conflated in people’s minds. A doctor I spoke to recently said he had assumed that the EMR vendor would convert older paper records to electronic as part of the EMR purchase package. Well, the vendor might – for a fee. Electronic conversion ranges from simple paper scans to character/word recognition. For truly rich use of your data, say for report generation purposes, you’ll want something that populates a database. In fact, “data transfer probably is going to be a significant line item in the EMR budget.”

Not all data is equal: Having an EMR doesn’t mean that every little scrap of paper from the patient’s records needs to go into it. Doctors can make the call on the kind of data that they find most useful. It would however need some amount of planning and insight, not to mention time, to make this happen. What’s important depends on specialty as well.

Not all patients are equal: If a small proportion of patients you see tend to be the ones that come for repeat consults, it might make more sense to get the entirety of their paper records into the EMR.

Don’t make a beeline for the shredder immediately: Really, this should be self-intuitive. Unless you’re sure that every important piece of information you need has been transferred to the EMR, and the EMR data matches what’s on paper, don’t shred the patient’s records.

The only real quibble I have with the article was where it mentions that one company found that “having the doctors enter the data ensured the integrity of the information and helped them learn the new system.” Seriously? Have your $200+ per hour physician enter older records into an EMR, when you can get a temp or third-party vendor to do it for a fraction of the cost?

The statistics at the end of the article are quite interesting. The first statistic is especially encouraging.

A survey of 200 health IT professionals found that hospitals are taking varied approaches to digitizing their records. (Respondents could give more than one answer.)
49% have scanned what they need and stayed within their budget.
23% are within budget but still have a backlog of records to scan.
54% are scanning records onsite.
29% are using a centralized scanning location.
72% are relying on full-time employees to scan.
9% are using third parties.
6% are using part-time staff.
44% are not explicitly measuring the effectiveness or productivity of their scanning process.
58% plan to shred paper records once scanning is complete.
38% plan to store paper files in onsite records rooms or offsite storage facilities.

Source: Survey by information management company Iron Mountain, July

Fixing EMR Drawbacks

Posted on October 17, 2011 I Written By

Priya Ramachandran is a Maryland based freelance writer. In a former life, she wrote software code and managed Sarbanes Oxley related audits for IT departments. She now enjoys writing about healthcare, science and technology.

FierceHealthIT editor Ken Terry had a recent post on the need for better human-computer interfaces in EMRs. He highlighted a few areas where EMRs could stand some improvement, and I thought they were bang on. These are aspects I’ve thought about a great deal myself, and true to the Steve Jobs dictum of staying foolish, I’m offering some solutions to these oft-mentioned problems. I’m sure there are plenty of people who have already thought of these and better solutions, but here we go:

1) Initial Data Entry – The biggest headache for providers’ offices today is what to do with all those boxes of medical records. Scanning solutions exist but they leave you with unstructured data. Manual extraction is time-consuming and requires upfront investment. I’ve pondered for a while about this. I think on-demand data extraction might be the way to go. Provider offices know ahead of time what their weekly, even monthly appointments are. If a provider’s office digitizes the records of patients with upcoming appointments every week, it should have most of its records digitized by end of year. This is assuming patients make it to the doctor’s office for at least once-a-year appointments if not more. If the office outsources this work, it needs some monetary investment, no doubt, but such a setup might be affordable since it is pay-as-you-go.

2) Templating – Terry states that many doctors hate the templates that come with most EMRs. And templates make it easy to generate pages and pages of verbiage which say exactly the same thing for patients with similar profiles, or say very little that is meaningful. Surely customizable or extensible templates can get rid of this problem. Or speech-to-text dictation that allows the doctor to mirror practices from not so long ago.

3) Alert Overload – Many EMRs are designed to issue alerts for adverse drug interactions, prompts for patients and similar such decision support tools. But too few of these and you risk not asking the right questions. Too many providers just ignore them, or worse, override them. No easy solutions for this one, except maybe to figure out where the fine line lies between lack of decision support and too many alerts.

4) Interoperability – EMRs cannot talk to each other. So a patient who moves from one provider to another is really at the mercy of software whimsies. Or worse. For providers, it’s equally frustrating not to be able to get ahold of the patient records in a format suitable for their particular EMR software. One simple answer – standards. Granted HL7 is still evolving, but EMR vendors need to at least consider offering data exports in this format.