EMRs: [Slowly] working towards both intended and unintended benefits.



Electronic Medical Records (EMR) or Electronic Health Records (EHR) represent a rapidly expanding portion of the medical records in this country. The fact that so many providers are switching to an electronic format for their records (while few, if any, switch back to the hand-written form) is a testament to the benefits of the electronic medium.

The primary benefits are better explicated elsewhere, and some are patently obvious. EMRs increase efficiency to doctors and staff, allow easier and faster access to relevant information and can be kept more secure than traditional records. For patients, electronic records allow greater portability between providers, with increased fail-safes to prevent complications or harmful interactions.

But one significant benefit to electronic records may have been wholly unanticipated. EMRs provide great value to attorneys and law firms defending medical providers against malpractice lawsuits.

Handwriting Mishaps, No More 

Primarily, this is because EMRs provide defense attorneys with a clear record of what decisions were made at what time. Handwriting legibility problems, long the stereotypical bane of those who regularly interact with medical professionals, are a thing of the past.

Similarly departed are disputes over the order in which patient interactions took place. Note writers on EMRs can define both the time care was given and the time the note was entered. Later readers can sort by either field to get a more accurate picture of what took place when. EMRs also provide cost benefits for entities that find themselves defending lawsuits.

Records can be made searchable, lessening the amount of time that attorneys and paralegals must root through records to find necessary information. And mailing and copying charges are greatly reduced when all the documents for a particular case can be stored on a single flash drive.

It’s All in Writing, or Typing
Perhaps most importantly, electronic records can provide a measure of certainty in the uncertain world of litigation. Litigators (and clients) no longer need to “interpret” handwriting for a jury, or condition their predictions on the extent to which a jury believes that a particular record says what the author claims it does. For good or for ill, all parties can negotiate settlements or proceed to trial with greater confidence as to what the evidence actually says.

Still Some Quirks
All of this, of course, assumes a perfect world in which EMRs are standardized, readily available, and clearly interpretable. And while the current state of EMRs is getting better, it is still far from perfect. Medical professionals have differing comfort levels with varying software systems, which can lead to inconsistent entries. Software systems themselves vary greatly in quality and reliability.

There are even doctors changing jobs and/or locations due to frustrations with particular software systems. But even if the systems themselves were smoothly operating, and the professionals adept and consistent in their entries, the large number of systems competing for market saturation would necessarily limit the benefits of clarity, cost-efficiency, and portability described above.

A Whole New World
Like cell phone technology did for society at large fifteen years ago, EMRs are opening up a world of connectivity possibilities for the medical community. Like that technology at that time, EMR technology offers a wealth of possibilities for the future. Health care can be made better, more portable, and more accessible, with better outcomes.

Likewise, the unintended benefits to medical providers in the event of later lawsuits are legion. But like cell phone technology in the late 1990s, widespread usage has not yet translated into a widely-adopted particular technology.

Unlike cell phones, however, that large degree of variance is preventing society from benefiting from all the upside that such technology has to offer. While EMRs are currently providing benefits to medical providers, patients, and attorneys, a greater collective benefit remains elusive for the time being.

John Pollom is with Stites & Harbison.