If you’ve noticed your doctors using tablets in the exam room, don’t fret — they’re not playing games or watching Netflix.
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They’re using electronic health records (EHRs). As of 2013, 78 percent of office-based doctors were using some form of EHR, and paper files are on their way out.
You don’t get to choose your EHR; they vary from office to office and hospital to hospital. But you should ask your doctor about how you can make better use of them, especially for communications. The benefits are abundant.
1. EHRs reduce medical errors
The stereotype that doctors have bad handwriting is questionable, but handwritten prescriptions do cause errors.
That’s why most EHRs have built-in e-prescribing tools. When doctors write your prescriptions electronically, mistakes decrease drastically. You provide your pharmacy contact info, and doctors can send your prescriptions to them quickly and accurately.
EHRs also raise red flags your doctor or pharmacist might miss. If your doctor prescribes you a new medication, the EHR offers a warning about how that drug interacts with anything else you’re taking.
2. You can stop playing phone tag with your doctor’s office
“Many EHRs offer two-way communications between doctors and patients. Think of it like a built-in email or text-messaging system.”
David Longworth, MD
Chairman, Medicine Institute
Many EHRs offer two-way communications between doctors and patients. Think of it like a built-in email or text-messaging system. If you have access to this option, sign up.
For example, we started testing two-way messaging in Cleveland Clinic’s MyChart in the past year. Around 40 percent of eligible patients have signed up. Using a system like this, you can handle the basics: request a medication refill, schedule an appointment or ask about test results.
But you can also cut down on unnecessary trips to the doctor. Say, for example, you have side effects from a new medication. Use the EHR to alert your doctor. If there are major concerns, the doctor may ask you to come in for an in-person follow-up. But if the side effects are mild, the doctor may save you a trip by simply adjusting your dosage or prescribing a different medication.
In either case, you get better access and a quicker response.
3. Improve your care coordination
Coordinated care is front and center in healthcare reform. But coordinated care would be nearly impossible without the EHR.
Think about a patient who has diabetes, for example. An EHR follows this patient from doctor to doctor in a way no paper file could. An endocrinologist can pull up any notes a primary care physician added about blood glucose control. An ophthalmologist can add information about early signs of eye disease. A coordinating doctor or nurse can see every drug a fellow team member has prescribed, every test ordered, every patient visit, and so on.
As a patient, you want these people to talk to each other. The EHR gives them a place to have that conversation. And if you sign up for two-way communications, you can join it.
4. Track your health over time
Do you remember exactly how much you weighed last year? Do you remember your pain “score” from your last appointment? Probably not.
Yes, older paper records recorded these facts. But electronic records make them much easier to track and graph over time.
A tech-savvy doctor — and, admittedly, not everyone is there yet — will look at your data year by year for trends. Do you tend to gain weight at certain times of year or after stressful events? Is medication or physical therapy improving your chronic pain? If you had a spike in blood pressure last year, was it a fluke or a long-term issue?
An EHR makes it easy to find out.
There are still plenty of hurdles to overcome with EHRs. For example, the many different systems are not all compatible. That presents a problem if you have doctors at multiple locations, or if you switch doctors.
But overall, EHRs are moving in a good direction. If you are able to participate — particularly in add-on features such as two-way communications — do so. Your care will be more efficient and more effective as a result.