In an age of iPads, smartphones, and minute-by-minute Facebook updates, does a
visit to your doctor's office sometimes seem like a trip back in time? Does your doc
scribble notes onto sheets of paper and then slide them into an ever-expanding folder
that gets stored in a huge file case?
Although many doctors still keep notes in files, more and more patients are seeing
laptops instead of clipboards in the exam room. Doctors and hospitals are turning
to new health information technology, and while these changes won't happen overnight,
they are coming.
Electronic health records(EHR) — also
called electronic medical records (EMR) — help patients as
well as health professionals. That's because they make it easier for you (and your
parents, depending on your age) to see your health
An EHR is a computerized collection of a patient's health records. EHRs include
information like your age, gender, ethnicity, health history, medications, allergies,
immunization status, lab test results, hospital discharge instructions, and billing
Because electronic health records are digital, they can be shared easily among
your various health care providers if they're within the same hospital, clinic, or
health care system. So, for example, if you see a dermatologist and an asthma specialist
in addition to your primary care doctor, all these doctors
(and their nurses and other caregivers) will see the same records.
If one doctor orders a lab test, they all see the results. If one doctor
puts you on a new medication, the others get to see what it is — which is good
for you, because there's less chance of one health care provider prescribing a medication that could cause problems
if it's used with another medicine.
The Benefits of EHRs
Because EHRs improve how well your doctors talk to each other and coordinate your
treatment, they can enhance your overall care. Here are some of the ways they can
No more handwriting mishaps. There are lots of jokes about doctors'
handwriting. But the drawbacks to handwritten charts go beyond hard-to-read handwriting.
When health care providers and
nurses take notes, they're more likely to abbreviate to save time, and there's always
a risk they'll forget what they meant or that someone else looking at the chart won't
understand the abbreviation and have to find out what it means. EHR software helps
clinicians be both detailed and fast by providing a series of prompts and dropdown
menus to click through.
Education. Being able to see your medical files lets you take
part in your own health care. You can view test results, keep track of things like
glucose if you have diabetes or lung function if you have asthma, review your medical
team's instructions, and even check for errors.
Security. There's always the chance that paper records can get
lost or misfiled or somehow damaged. For example, paper medical records for thousands
of patients were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There's less chance of this
happening with electronic records — and most are password protected, so if they
do get lost other people won't have access to them.
Can Everybody See My Records?
No. A federal law called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act
(HIPAA) specifies who is allowed to see your medical records.
So you shouldn't worry, for example, if your nosy neighbor happens to work in the
same hospital where you receive treatment. HIPAA bars that person from snooping into
your records. In fact, if Nosy Neighbor attempts to poke around in your classified
information, it would likely trip an alarm within the hospital's computer system and
start a trace on who tried to look at that information.
Part of HIPAA called the Security Rule lays out standards protecting
the way electronic health records are stored or transferred. So if your doctor's office
or hospital transmits health information electronically, they are required by law
to have safeguards in place to limit access to only those who are permitted to see
Doctors encourage teens to get involved in making health care decisions, and understanding
EHRs are a great way to do that. Looking at yours can help you get an idea of what's
involved in managing
your own medical care.
Some systems may let you interact with your health
care provider or nurse online (providing a way to ask questions through
the system, for example), and might even allow you to set up and manage appointments.
If your doctor's office uses EMRs, ask how you can participate!