Put Health History in Digital Form

from Charleston Gazette, The .. 

By Dr. Michael O. Fidler 

Getting away from home and seeing new sights can be a rewarding experience. But getting sick or hurt far from home can be downright scary. You must trust your well-being to health-care providers you have never met before in facilities unfamiliar to you. 

For the physician who must treat you, the challenge to treat you is much greater without records kept by your regular doctor. The doctor's task is even more difficult if you are physically unable to tell him or her about your medical history or if you cannot recall which prescription drugs you take or which substances cause you to have allergic reactions. 

The more a doctor knows about your health conditions, the better that doctor can make informed decisions on how to treat you. The less a doctor knows about you, the more likely he or she might make an error. A less serious consequence, but potentially a quite expensive one, is that the doctor might order tests you already had. 

If the doctor is lucky, he or she might be able to reach your home doctor by phone to discuss your condition and perhaps get some of your records faxed. But imagine how useful it would be for the treating physician to have access to all necessary files. Quicker, more efficient health care is generally better health care, especially in emergencies. 

That would be possible if both physicians used electronic health records systems. One physician could quickly transfer your files electronically to the other, allowing that doctor to make decisions based on more complete information. It might not be the same as getting treatment from your hometown doctor, but could be the next best thing. 

One important concern is security. No one wants such private information to fall into the hands of computer hackers or others who have no business handling it. The good news is that patient privacy and security are built into all electronic records systems. Plus, unlike paper records, electronic records can be encoded so that only authorized people can view them. 

Good electronic health records systems not only limit access to records but also make it possible to track who has viewed any particular record. 

Some doctors have switched from paper records to electronic records, but many more should consider it. Not only would that better your odds of getting the best care away from home, but it would give your regular doctor many other advantages. 

Electronic records make it easier to track trends in the data collected on their patients, which could alert them to developing conditions that need to be treated. Electronic records also require much less storage space than paper, and they can be backed up and stored securely off site, which would protect them in case of a fire or flood. 

A survey of U.S. physicians published by the New England Journal of Medicine in June found that two-thirds of those who had not switched to electronic health records systems listed the cost of purchasing systems as the main reason. But as has happened with other technology, as more physicians go to electronic record- keeping, the costs should come down. 

Also, the federal government has begun offering financial incentives to get physician practices to use electronic health records, so that barrier is being lowered. 

Thus, it would be timely for physicians still using paper health records to start seriously considering a change. And it could help if some of their patients would encourage them to do so. 

It could be for everyone's benefit. 

Fidler is a doctor at Bone & Joint Surgeons Inc. in Charleston. 

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