The use of electronic medical records has been gaining in popularity for the last decade, particularly since 2011, when doctors were offered financial incentives under the Affordable Care Act to switch from paper to computers.
The advantages of electronic health records include improved patient care and coordination between doctors and other medical staff; increased patient participation; better diagnostics and patient outcomes; and cost savings, according to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.
The disadvantages are huge, however. There is a potential for security breaches where hackers can access patient records and more.
So, how safe are your medical records?
In December 2018, Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill announced that he was leading a 12-state federal lawsuit against a Fort Wayne web-based electronic health records company that allegedly sustained a data breach, compromising the data of more than 3.9 million people.
Between May 7, 2015, and May 26, 2015, hackers infiltrated WebChart, a web application run by Medical Informatics Engineering (MIE).
The hackers stole names, telephone numbers, mailing addresses, user names, passwords, security questions and answers, email addresses, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, lab results, health insurance policy information, diagnosis, doctors’ names, medical conditions, and children’s names and birth statistics, according to the Indiana Attorney General’s office.
In addition to using hacked information for financial purposes, hackers also want your health information in order to receive medical care, buy drugs, buy medical equipment (which is often resold on the black market) or submit fake claims.
Ultimately, a consent judgement was filed, forcing MIE to take a variety of steps to shore up the security of patient records.
“We will always act to protect Hoosier consumers in cases such as this one,” Hill said in a statement. “We make it our standard practice to pursue all penalties and remedies available under the law on behalf of our citizens, and we hope our proactive measures serve to motivate all companies doing business in Indiana to exercise the highest ethics and utmost diligence.”
Hospitals across the country have taken note and are constantly updating their systems to protect patient privacy.
Mark Kutin, chief information security officer at Community Howard Regional Health in Kokomo, said they have a team of people “dedicated to access control.”
“The safety of information we’re entrusted with is one of our top concerns,” he said. “We strive to maintain the integrity and trust of our patients.”
To that end, the hospital has a variety of checks and balances to protect health records.
“One of the programs we use is a palm-scanning software,” said Kutin. “Patients can opt into the program, which allows them to access their medical records when they place their hand on a reader that will tie it to their unique handprint.”
He said staff is constantly trained and updated. “There are open lines of communication with the staff and we are always looking at new technologies. The safety of information we’re entrusted with is one of our top concerns. We strive to maintain the integrity and trust of our patients.”
Dr. Laura Stage, a pediatrician at North Central Indiana Pediatric Center, said electronic records have many benefits when it comes to patient care.
“The first thing I do when I start my day is pull up appointments on the computer,” she said. “Medical records are linked to those appointments, so I can click on the appointments and get the patients’ charts.
“When the patient is seen I write notes about the visit and the diagnosis. I can also send prescriptions automatically to their pharmacy,” she said. “The computer will also flag issues with prescriptions; double-checks are built into the system.”
Another advantage, she said, is electronic notes are much easier to read than handwritten notes by doctors, which are notoriously difficult to read.
One of the disadvantages is that some patients have complained that doctors are looking at the computer rather than making eye contact with the patient.
An analysis of nearly 60 doctors in four states shows electronic health record systems designed to speed patient referrals and improve treatment are contributing to doctor burnout and taking away from patient care. The findings from a “time and motion” study are published in the Sept. 6, 2018, issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.
“For every hour physicians provide direct clinical face time to patients, nearly 2 additional hours is spent on EHR and desk work within the clinic day,” researchers wrote. “Outside office hours, physicians spend another one to two hours of personal time each night doing additional computer and other clerical work.”
To counter that, Stage said she uses a computer mounted on a wall “so I’m not looking up or down, but making eye contact.”
According to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, the advantage of electronic health records also include:
• Providing accurate, up-to-date, and complete information about patients at the point of care.
• Enabling quick access to patient records for more coordinated, efficient care.
• Securely sharing electronic information with patients and other clinicians.
• Helping providers more effectively diagnose patients, reduce medical errors, and provide safer care.
• Improving patient and provider interaction and communication, as well as health care convenience.
• Helping providers improve productivity and work-life balance.
• Enabling providers to improve efficiency and meet their business goals.
• Reducing costs through decreased paperwork, improved safety, reduced duplication of testing, and improved health.
One of the main things that the healthcare profession touts is that patients are getting more involved in their own care with the use of electronic health records.
“Studies show patients involved with their own care have better outcomes,” said Kutin. “We give them a tablet and they can access their own care plan, names and pictures of the care team and their current medications.”
The bottom line is to constantly monitor the safety of patients’ health records while improving patient care, he said. “And that is what really matters.”