Using a computer to store health records isn’t a new concept–in fact, it’s been around for decades–but more doctors and consumers are embracing it as electronic health technology flourishes.
As they become more widespread, electronic health records could enable doctors to diagnose conditions more accurately, see more patients, and decrease unnecessary testing. Moreover, computerized health records could eliminate a lot of waiting-room paperwork, allowing doctors to spend less time gleaning information from charts and more time with patients, advocates say.
A wide variety of e-health programs are now being marketed. Some exclude patient input but allow health care professionals to record data and pass it along to anyone treating the patient. Others allow consumers to record any information they think is relevant to doctors–over-the-counter allergy medicines taken regularly or organ donor status, for example.
Likewise, hardware runs the gamut from CDs to Web-based programs and USB devices.
About 60 to 70 types of e-health records are being used around the world, said Ray Pedden, chief operating officer for Secure Services Corporation, an Illinois-based company that develops e-health technology. Some doctors now require patients to take a survey online before a visit that replaces a paper record.
Dr. Allen Wenner, a family practice physician in Lexington, South Carolina and part-time e-health software developer, said implementing an online health program has enabled him often to diagnose patients even before they arrive at his office. As a result, he can spend his time with the patient talking about the diagnosis and treatment.
Other times, Wenner says, electronic records provide him with a body of information to make an accurate diagnosis the first time he sees a patient, eliminating the need for several costly tests to identify a health problem.
Wenner began using e-health to improve his diagnoses. The computer performs the repetitive, time-consuming task of gathering information, allowing the physician to focus on evaluating the data, he said.
But the doctor’s diagnosis depends on the quality of the program, Wenner explained.
“The key to this is having elegant-enough software that’s complete and comprehensive enough to do that. A complete history, as though taken by a medical student, will do that,” Wenner said. “If it’s not as good as a doctor, it’s not good enough. It’s not just communication; it’s diagnosis.”
Using e-health records to diagnose conditions more accurately in less time decreases costs for both patients and insurers, Wenner said.
“We have all the information to make the diagnosis without the test,” Wenner said. “That will save more money as well. [Ordering several tests] is inappropriate. It’s a waste of money. There are many, many tests ordered that aren’t needed.”
Wave of the Future
E-health is a long-needed development for the health care industry, Wenner said. While other industries have used technology to improve efficiency, doctors see the same number of patients in 2007 as they did in the 1950s.
Nevertheless, Wenner said, some doctors and insurers don’t want to support e-health systems right now, “because they will empower the patient, and there’s no proof they will improve cost, even though I argue it does dramatically.”
E-health records, Wenner says, have met more resistance in the medical community than anything since “doctors learned they should wash their hands before surgery.”
That may be due to the fact that many physicians currently practicing belong to an older demographic that remains wary of new technology. Young people who have grown up embracing technology haven’t graduated from medical school yet. But it’s the future of medicine, Wenner said.
“There is a theory of history that says the only way new ideas are adopted is for everybody who believes in the old ideas to die–and that’s what it may take in e-health,” Wenner said.
Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.