Enough to Make You Sick: The Cost of Medical Paperwork
President Obama offered $27 billion to encourage all physicians to switch to computerized medical records by 2015 as part of his 2009 stimulus package. While it makes a lot of sense to digitize medical records, progress has been slow. The cost of upgrading equipment can be around $40,000, as Medill on the Hill points out, a hefty sum for a small practice with a few or only one doctor. Critics cite fears of privacy (understandable in light of numerous recent reports about organizations like the CIA having their sites hacked into) and question if digital medical records will make any difference in patient care.
But one look at the wall of color-coded file folders in the average doctor’s office can leave a patient to wonder, how in the world are they going to dig out my file from so many? Digital medical records can also significantly lower health care costs. One reason health care costs so much is because we spend about $400 billion in paperwork and administrative costs. Digital medical records could help to defray these significantly.
As noted in the Medill on the Hill article, the US continues to drag its feet to switch to digital records because the process of switching is laborious and time-consuming.
In 2008 only four percent of physicians used electronic medical records that could be described as “meaningful,” according to a national survey in the New England Journal of Medicine. And according to a study published in Health Affairs in 2010, only two percent of U.S. hospitals reported having electronic medical records that meet the government’s criteria.
[Tim Huerta, assistant professor of Health Organization Management at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas] said doctors may resist adopting the technology because it consumes a facility’s manpower, time and money. Doctors may have to pay to train employees how to operate the system, or spend the time or money to learn themselves. Meantime, the digitization of hundreds of thousands of paper medical records could take years. That switch could take up to 10 years for hospitals with high volumes of patient files, said Kim Bussie, the Director of Health Information Management at Howard University Hospital.
In addition, medical office staff needs training to use digital medical record systems. Keeping track of medical records has become a business and a profession in and of itself, as indicated by Huerta’s academic field being Health Organization Management; my own college has started a masters degree program in health records management.
As someone who has moved quite a bit over the past decade, I’m very much in favor of digital medical records. My son has always had some complicated medical issues as he’s autistic and needs to be followed closely by, among other doctors, a pediatric neurologist. As we’ve moved several times to find him the best possible school, we’ve had to switch doctors as many times, meaning that we’ve had to get medical records from an increasingly long list of doctors’ offices forwarded to the new doctor’s office. A digital record of all his medical history would be a huge help.
We do have our own xeroxed copy of the records from the St. Louis-area hospital where Charlie was born in 1997. We’d requested these years ago after hearing about a study linking pitocin, which is given to induce labor, to autism, and also to review the circumstances of Charlie’s birth, which happened after I was in labor for 21 1/2 hours. The records were certainly interesting to read but not that revealing. It was also simply hard to read the xerox-smudged words scrawled by busy hospital personnel; in some cases, words were illegible or abbreviated or cut off in the process of xeroxing.
A detailed graphic from Medical Transcription presents the “sick cost of medical paperwork” in quite glaring detail. Go to the next page of this post to see how billions in health care costs could be saved by going paperless for medical records.
Created by: Medical Transcription
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