The medical industry's recent plunge into the world of electronic health records – unofficially known as its catching up with almost every other industry – is looking good.
You'll recall that there's been an effort in recent years to move medical providers from unruly piles of hard copy paper records to far more efficient systems known as electronic health records (EHRs). There are plenty of reasons to make the switch – improved data, efficiency and accountability, as well as a far easier way to collect information about patients, for starters.
The disadvantages can be steep, though, and include an initial loss of productivity while doctors and other providers learn how to use an EHR. It's also pricey – St. John's Well Child and Family Center in South L.A., for example, spent about $1.5 million to make the transition.
But a new study appearing in the Journal of General Internal Medicine says there's compelling evidence that grappling with those challenges is worth it, because it seems that EHRs improve the quality of patient care.
It's one of the first studies to find a link between improved care and EHRs, according to the authors. They looked at nine measures of care, including whether providers offered patients screenings for diabetes, breast cancer, chlamydia and colorectal cancer.
For those four measures in particular, providers who used EHRs offered significantly better care than those who used paper records. Looking at the other five measures, researchers also determined that using EHRs led to better patient care than did using paper records.
Rachel Dimacali, a physician's assistant at St. John's, agrees with the study's findings. She says she began working at the clinic just before its implementation of an EHR, and describes the difference between pre- and post-EHR "like night and day."
"There were a lot of challenges just figuring out what was going with a patient," she said, pointing to the frequent problems providers had with reading a handwritten paper chart. Using EHRs, she said, makes them "easier to read" and the entire process "much more streamlined."
"I do think EHR has improved the quality of care just because you're able to clearly see and read the notes," said Dimacali.
Not to mention the flexibility it gives both providers and patients. St. John's has more than one clinic, so providers can now move between sites without worrying about losing track of a patient's charts – they're all on the same EHR. Conversely, if the clinic's Compton site is full, a patient can just go to another site that does have an opening.
The transition to EHR "wasn't always easy," Dimacali said, but "once you go through the process of learning the system, it's much safer overall, just for the type of care that we give."
Howard Kahn is the CEO of L.A. Care Health Plan, a nonprofit that provides health care to the county's most vulnerable populations. He said it was "nice to hear" the study's findings.
"We have had a firm belief for a long time that electronic health records are key to a more efficient and more effective delivery of quality care in the future," he said.
Kahn said the federal government has given L.A. Care the role of leading the way for the implementation of EHRs among L.A. County providers, and that so far, the agency has more than 4,500 doctors signed up to participate and nearly 3,000 who have already gone live.
He added that of those 3,000, nearly 900 are now "meaningful users," which he said means that they're using EHRs to exchange data.
In a statement, the study's senior investigator, Dr. Rainu Kaushal, said the "real value of these systems" lies in their "ability to organize data" and help providers truly offer tailored care.