electronic medical recordsA new study has found that electronic medical records can indeed deliver on promises of increased efficiency and better patient care — that is, if doctors actually check them.

The study, conducted by the Brookings Institution, analyzed care given to more than 2,000 patients in the emergency departments of three hospitals in Western New York. It concluded that doctors can drastically lower the number of unnecessary lab tests and radiology exams ordered by routinely checking a network of electronic medical records.

How drastically? The number of lab tests dropped by 52% when the emergency rooms employed assistants to check medical software systems; radiology exams such as CT scans were reduced by 36%. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

Key Insights

There are a few things to take away from the study:
Interconnectedness Is Key to Realizing Potential
One important thing to recognize about the study is that the medical personnel involved were checking not only an internal electronic record, but an online EMR software plugged into HEALTHeLINK, a voluntary database that allows patients to have their information shared among providers at different offices and hospitals. This kind of sharing (often referred to as “interoperability”) has been a major challenge to realizing the full potential of electronic records.

Hiring and Workflow Need to Accommodate EMRs
The study found that the money saved by not performing extra tests was enough to hire medical assistants to actually check the records. This suggests that changing staffing and workflow can be a viable alternative to expecting doctors to perform this type of research for every patient. That’s important in light of findings such as one 2014 survey of the American College of Physicians in which family practice physicians reported spending 48 extra minutes per day dealing with electronic records.

Electronic Medical Records Are as Promising as Ever
Above all, this study demonstrates that the steady growth rate of EMR technology is a trajectory that can be continued. Between 2010, the first year for which data were collected, and 2013, physician adoption of electronic systems meeting federal standards for Stage 2 meaningful use went up significantly; by 2013, around 69% of physicians reported that they were already participating or planning to participate in federal incentive programs for implementing electronic records. That’s a good start, but knowing that these systems really can make a difference should provide an incentive to overcome hurdles and continue growth.

The full study has been published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.


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