how safe are electronic medical records

As previously discussed in our blog, many hospitals and doctor’s offices here in Pennsylvania and across the country are now making the transition from paper charts to electronic medical records. As a result, don’t be surprised to see medical professionals recording items in notebook computers or iPads during your next trip to a health care facility.

Some may consider this an exciting technological advancement — and certainly something must be done to address the type of shoddy record-keeping that puts patients at risk — but there are serious safety concerns regarding the move to electronic records.

Consider that just a few weeks ago, there was a system outage at Cerner Corp. — one of the leading providers of electronic medical records technology — that caused dozens of hospitals and doctor’s offices across the U.S. to lose all access to patient information for nearly five hours.

This is truly frightening when you really think about it, as doctors and nurses at these hospitals were unable to access vital patient information that had previously been stored in Cerner’s remote server, and which could have meant the difference between life and death.

“If you can’t get to all the patient notes and all the previous data, you can imagine it’s very confusing and mistakes could be made,” said a physician at one of the affected hospitals. “A new doctor comes on shift and doesn’t have access to what happened the past few hours or days.”

A similar outage occurred right here in Pennsylvania last December, when a Cerner crash hit the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which relies on electronic medical records to serve patients at its 20-plus hospitals across the state. Fortunately, UPMC had access to a backup system containing patient files.

However, what happens if just one of Cerner’s 2,600 hospital clients or other medical facilities using electronic medical record services provided by other companies doesn’t have access to a backup system? How many patients’ lives could be put in jeopardy because of a “human glitch?”

Hopefully, the federal government — which is mandating (and funding) the transition to electronic medical records by 2015 — will listen carefully to the recommendation made by the Institute of Medicine that an independent agency be formed to monitor electronic medical records already in place, and investigate any injuries or fatalities linked to the technology.

“As vendors and the federal government push for totally electronic systems the vulnerabilities of these hospitals to this kind of outage increases exponentially,” said Prof. Ross Koppel of the University of Pennsylvania of the recent Cerner system crash. “The lack of access to previous patient records means that doctors were flying blind.”

If hospital negligence or medical mistakes have caused you or your family to suffer serious harm, you should strongly consider taking action to protect your rights and your wellbeing.

Source: The Los Angeles Times, “Patient data outage exposes risks of electronic medical records,” Chad Terhune, Aug. 3, 2012

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