By Omar Abdul-Hafiz
The healthcare landscape has witnessed dramatic changes and developments throughout the decades on all levels. For example, going back about 6 to 7 decades ago, there was almost no way to identify the sex of an embryo before it was born. The mere idea of actually “seeing” that embryo grow from a wee 0.13-inch sized fetus in its 5th week to a near fully-grown baby in the final weeks of pregnancy was, back then, a thing of science fiction. Fast-forward to the ’80s, however, this started to become very possible with the widespread of ultrasound devices.
But the development doesn’t simply stop here, as it extends to every other aspect of the healthcare sector, most notably in the way we now handle patients’ medical data.
From paper-intensive to digitally-driven
Not long ago, collecting and storing medical data depended exclusively on paper. The medical record used to be a paper repository of information that was used for several purposes. And of course, handling stacks upon stacks of paper – mostly consisting of highly sensitive and important information – was a labour-intensive task that required extreme care. Additionally, updating paper-based records had to be done manually, a task which takes a lot of time and effort.
Moreover, with the advancement of medical imaging and diagnostic screening tests, the amount of medical information generated increased substantially. According to Statista, global healthcare data was projected to increase from about 153 exabytes generated in 2013 to more than 2,314 exabytes of new data in 2020. This, in turn, called for a more effective document management solution. This is when information technology came to the rescue.
With the fast evolution and spread of information technology, the trend shifted toward storing medical information onto the computer. This involved the development of sophisticated database systems that automatically store and organize all types of data and documents for easy and secure retrieval when needed. Thanks to this technology, what once needed massive space to store can now be kept safe in a small memory card, or a USB stick.
EHR vs. EMR
Before we go further into the topic at hand, one thing worth clarifying first and foremost is the difference between the Electronic Health Record (EHR) and the Electronic Medical Record (EMR). And the main difference between them is that an EMR is a local system designed to collect and store medical information exclusively within the medical institution in which it is created. As such, they are mainly designed to be used by healthcare service providers for diagnosis and treatment, and they are not meant to be shared outside of the individual medical practice.
An EHR, on the other hand, is implemented on a much larger scale. They are designed for sharing patients’ information with authorized service providers between two, three, or more organizations. This even enables them to be implemented on a nationwide scale. The biggest merit of an EHR system is that it allows patients’ medical information to move smoothly between specialists, emergency rooms, laboratories, pharmacies, imaging centres, and more.
Alright, now that we got this potential misconception out of the way, let’s dive back into the merits of the Electronic Health Record (EHR).
The benefits of the EHR system
The Electronic Health Record was designed as a centralized repository of patients’ medical information. This article will focus on three of its main valuable features: patient-centricity, portability, and information security.
In times of international turmoil in the healthcare sector, such as the ongoing global COVID-19 crisis, there is an even more urgent need to harness all available means towards providing patients with the most state-of-the-art medical service possible. Needless to say, all efforts in the healthcare sector need to be focused on serving patients’ needs.
Through an EHR system, doctors and physicians access their patients’ detailed medical history in point-and-click simplicity. The information they can view may include anything from their previous diagnoses, lab tests, radiology images, prescriptions history, and much more. What this means is that ample time and efforts are being saved and shifted from sifting through stacks of paper to delivering a medical service that the patient can immediately benefit from.
The traditional method of medical filing involved saving medical information on paper, placing them in carton folders and storing them in large filing rooms for later reference. And while this method was able to serve its purpose effectively for a long time, one still cannot overlook its clear disadvantages. For one thing, this process consumes large amounts of paper, making it environmentally unfriendly. Aside from that, however, it also puts all this sensitive information at the risk of loss or corruption due to the decay or potential misplacement of the papers on which it’s written.
These hassles, however, can be eliminated or at least minimized with the Electronic Health Record (EHR) where patients’ information is safely stored in a database and is easily retrievable as needed.
In the old-school paper-dependent model, accessing a certain document entailed manually searching of it among stacks of folders which in many cases can take a long time. Following that, the document can only be accessed by one individual at a time, and it moves from one individual to the other (e.g.: the reception staff, then the accounting staff, then the nurse, then doctor, etc.), until it is returned back to its place in the filing room after the medical process has been completed.
Within an EHR system, on the other hand, medical data can be made accessible simultaneously by more than one authorized party at a time, thus saving much valuable time and effort. Moreover, updating medical records is done in one place and can be seen momentarily by others who are authorized to access it.
One highly fundamental element in data management in general, and especially within the context of the healthcare sector, is information security. Information security mainly concerns two major aspects: Security against loss or corruption of valuable documents and security against unauthorized access and usage of sensitive data.
Many healthcare experts and physicians tend to dismiss EHR systems as being counterproductive and costly. According to them, the idea of purchasing the new software, moving all patient information into the new system, and re-thinking the entire process of handling patients’ health information seems way too inconvenient.
And while their concern is understood, it’s not precisely accurate. According to Software Advice, “failure to adopt an EHR system will only result in patient privacy violations down the line.” The website also mentions three main elements that every EHR system includes which are: audit trails, password protection, and data encryption.
- Audit trails: Audit trails help keep track of every single instance of access or action taken with patients’ information by automatically recording and registering who accessed a certain document, when they accessed it, where they accessed it from, and what they did when they accessed it. By recording all this information, EHR systems enable users to regularly review activities and detect suspicious actions that may lead to legal violations.
- Password protection: Needless to say, password protection is a basic element in any system regardless of what it is. And naturally, EHR systems are no exception. The system should enforce users to use complex passwords to strengthen system security.
- Data encryption: According to Software Advice, EHRs should utilize sophisticated data encryption methods to make it safer to transfer patient data (such as diagnoses, test results, or medical histories). This ensures that these highly private documents can only be accessed and obtained by certain personnel who, for example, have the access code or are given special access permissions.
Saving time and cost
Implementing an EHR system can help optimize the time and costs it takes to deliver swift and successful medical services. For one thing, maximizing the portability of medical documents can help boost the speed of delivering suitable and necessary medical service much sooner. This is clearly seen considering the EHR’s ability to streamline the accessibility and portability of medical data as previously discussed.
Aside from that, according to HealthIT, a website run by the Office of the US National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), “many health care providers have found that electronic health records (EHRs) help improve medical practice management by increasing practice efficiencies and cost savings.” The website even lists several ways in which this is achieved, including:
- Reduced transcription costs
- Reduced chart pull, storage, and re-filling costs
- Improved documentation and automated coding capabilities
- Reduced medical errors through better access to patient data and error prevention alerts
- Improved patient health/quality of care through batter disease management and patient education
|The benefits of an EHR system.|
In light of all this, and given the current rising challenges in the healthcare sector around the globe, it is of the utmost importance to shift towards a more efficient and secure system for handling patients’ information.