Electronic Health Records: Helpful, But We’ll Still Need to Wait For Them

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For years now, people have expected electronic health records to be the next big thing in healthcare. Digitization is supposed save us time and money. It should speed up routine tasks, like booking appointments. It should help prevent duplication of work — stopping doctors from running tests that have already been run in another location, for example. And it should eliminate some possibilities for human error as well, with services like automatic alerts for doctors who prescribe a patient a drug that matches a listed allergy on the patient’s medical chart.

Yet few U.S. hospitals have embraced digital records, despite rich incentives from the federal government. Today, a new progress report published online by the policy journal Health Affairs shows that still only 11.9% percent of U.S. hospitals were using electronic health records in 2009, up — modestly — from 8.7% in 2008.

The new Health Affairs research looks at survey data from the American Hospital Association. When they analyzed the digital-record-users more closely, though, the researchers behind this new article found that just 2% of U.S. hospitals use the records well enough that they’d qualify for available federal funds.

Common complaints from hospitals are the high start-up costs of digitizing, and also the time it takes to train hospital staff properly on how to use the new records. Small, public, or rural hospitals are less likely to have any digital records than larger, private, urban hospitals, the new study shows. In the end, then, the researchers write, “‘the transition to a digital health care system is likely to be a long one.” Don’t hold your breath.