Once your health and medical records are being kept, accessed, changed and updated digitally, using computers or tablets or other devices, they are called EHRs (Electronic Health Records) or EMRs (Electronic Medical Records).
Just like any other record keeping, moving patients' records from paper and physical filing systems to computers and their super storage capabilities creates great efficiencies for patients and their providers, as well as health payment systems.
But efficiency isn't the only benefit. For individual patients, access to good care becomes easier and safer when records can easily be shared. Important information -- such as blood type, prescribed drugs, medical conditions and other aspects of our medical history -- can be accounted for much more quickly. At the very least, an existing electronic health record (EHR) can save time at the doctor's office. At most, quick access to our records can be lifesaving if an emergency occurs and answers to those questions are needed during the emergency decision-making process.
Even the federal government thinks electronic record keeping is important, and it has put its money and efforts where its recommendations are. Veterans' hospitals across the country share an electronic system, called VistA, which allows for sharing of records for veterans in its health system. Should a patient find himself in a VA hospital, even while away from home, the hospital will have the same access to his or her records that the hometown hospital does, through a system called the Blue Button.
Further, the government set up an incentive system to encourage providers to implement electronic health records and adhere to a list of criteria to improve care and patient access. Those criteria are called Meaningful Use.
Tragic events like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the California fires have showcased the benefits of digital record keeping. Those injured or made sick by any of those events were more easily treated and may have found better outcomes than those for whom no medical records were available. Large scale EMR systems replicate their stored records in several places across the country so that one tragic event won't destroy them.
Another benefit is safety. In the past, the way a doctor obtained your health history was by asking you. Each time you visited a new doctor's office, you filled out forms about your history, including previous surgeries, or the drugs you take on a regular basis. If you forgot a piece of information, or if you didn't write it down because it seemed unimportant to you, then your doctor didn't have that piece of your medical puzzle to work with.
However, when doctors share records electronically, your new doctor only needs to ask your name, birthdate, and possibly another piece of identifying information. She can then pull up your records from their electronic storage space. All of the information he needs to see will be there in full. When it comes time to diagnose you, it might be important to him to learn that you are taking a certain kind of medication, or even an herbal supplement -- any information shared with a previous doctor. Diagnosis and treatment decisions might be altered based on that information, which is far more complete than what you might have written down on paper.
In the past, when a doctor closed his practice, retired, moved, or even died, patient records could easily get lost or relocated, making it impossible for patients to get the records they needed to take to a new doctor. Keeping these records electronically, especially in the cases where patients can also gain access to them, means the patient won't be left without the records she may need.
Money is saved by using electronic medical records; not just the cost of paper and file folders, but the cost of labor and space, too. In any business, time equals money. The efficiencies created by simply typing a few identifying keystrokes to retrieve a patient's record -- as opposed to staring at thousands of file folders, filing and refiling them -- saves a doctor's practice or a hospital many thousands of dollars. That's even taking the cost of the electronic system into account.
Efficiencies put into play by doctors and insurance companies to save money eventually lead to patients saving money, too.
An empowered patient knows to weigh these benefits against the limitations of electronic medical records and personal health records which include the numbers of mistakes that may be made, the lack of standards, and the issues of privacy and security.