Digitization of Health Records Moving Forward Slowly

Published July 1, 2008

Many Americans assume medical records are rapidly being digitized to save time and money and to help doctors track their patients’ medical histories. In fact, however, just 14 percent of doctors in the United States use electronic medical records. Jennifer Queen and her husband Randy know this from experience.

In 1997 their daughter Courtney was born with DiGeorge Syndrome, a rare disease caused by a large deletion from chromosome 22. Evident at birth, DiGeorge causes medical problems with the cardiac, pulmonary, endocrine, and immune systems, among others.

Courtney spent the first six months of her life in the hospital. At 10 years old, she had been hospitalized approximately 24 times and had undergone more than 400 medical procedures.

Parents Kept Records

For the first years of Courtney’s treatments at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, the hospital relied on paper medical records. The Queens maintained their own medical notes for Courtney and constantly transported them to various medical facilities. With no easy way to provide her medical history in an emergency, the family was reluctant to travel.

Even at Vanderbilt, the Queens constantly completed new forms and repeated information. The problems with the record-keeping system were never more evident than when a procedure was delayed for more than four hours while doctors and nurses waited for Courtney’s lengthy file to arrive from another hospital floor. Finally, the records arrived when an aide brought in the soaring stack of papers and manila folders on a wheelchair.

In 2005, Vanderbilt moved into new facilities featuring an advanced health IT infrastructure. The buildings and medical departments are now connected through a single computerized electronic medical record system.

“Now, as long as we stay in the Vandy-zone, all of our information is available at the click of a button,” Jennifer Queen said.

Most Systems Still Paper-Based

Unlike Vanderbilt, most facilities’ systems are still paper-based, meaning doctors waste thousands of hours and billions of dollars every year on redundant tests and duplicative history-taking.

Doctors see and treat millions of Courtney Queens each year. Digitized health records could get doctors caught up with even their newest patients in a matter of minutes and guide them toward more efficient, useful, and cost-effective time management.

Health IT does more than just speed the check-in process. The information available through Vanderbilt’s system contains Courtney Queen’s medication history and test results, plus specific details about the type of care she requires, down to the level of difficulty she has with IV sticks, which is recalled instantly.

Doctors Going Digital Overseas

The multitude of computer programs available has made American doctors reluctant to make the switch to digitized records, while 90 percent of doctors in Sweden and 60 percent in the United Kingdom have gone digital.

The value of digitized health record systems such as Vanderbilt’s is not lost on policymakers. Federal government leadership could establish interoperable standards allowing disparate programs to communicate with each other, thereby creating incentives for doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies to adopt electronic records and integrate health IT into their practices–without mandating that caregivers use them.

That would allow more families the opportunity to feel the same ease in any medical facility that the Queens feel at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “We’ve seen firsthand what an amazing difference electronic medical records can make to a family’s life. These technologies should be available to everyone,” Jennifer Queen said.

Joel White ([email protected]) is executive director of the Health IT Now Coalition and is former staff director of the U.S. House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee.