Electronic Medical Records Keep Natural Disasters From Turning into Personal Health Care Disasters

January 18th, 2013 by Leave a Comment

By Albert Woodard

Hurricane Sandy is only the most recent reminder that natural disasters, from earthquakes and floods to tornadoes and wildfires, don’t discriminate and will lay waste to homes and schools as well as crucial businesses including doctor’s offices, clinics and hospitals. 

These disasters take a terrible personal and economic toll. The nightmare of lost medical records, however, can put patients at immediate and life-threatening risk, not only during the disaster but for weeks and months afterward. Incidents of permanent record loss occur frequently because the United States lags behind other countries in the use of a technology that can prevent it – electronic medical records (EMRs). With a study by Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance firm, predicting that North America is the continent facing the largest increase in natural disasters in the future, it’s time to take action.

The difference between paper records and EMRs was dramatically contrasted following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in New Orleans in 2005 and the tornadoes that ripped through Joplin, Missouri, five years later (May 2011).

In New Orleans, doctors’ offices and hospitals lost patient records – permanently – because in most cases these paper files were stored in basements or on ground floor. They sat in water for weeks and were rendered a useless pile of waterlogged goo. In the aftermath, physicians treated New Orleans refugees who didn’t know what type of cancer they had, what treatment they had received, their drug allergies or what medications they had been receiving.

The Joplin tornado killed more than 160 people and heavily damaged that city’s St. John’s Regional Medical Center. Patient files were ripped up and scattered for miles. Fortunately, the hospital had completed its conversion to electronic medical records just three weeks before the tornado; patient histories were securely sitting in a server far away from the disaster.

The hospital building was badly damaged and its operations shut down, but St. John’s patients had seamless, continued access to their prescriptions and treatment schedules at other provider practices. Also important is that patient records – which also contained confidential information such as Social Security numbers, weren’t picked up by the tornado and spread all over the county, so privacy was ensured and identity fraud prevented.

Consider, too, how the tornadoes that tore through North Georgia in 2011 could have severely hampered patient care had they hit local hospitals and destroyed paper records like in New Orleans.

EMRs safeguard not only against natural disasters but against other unexpected dangers – fires, explosions, floods, for example –  because records are stored in databases in at least two other distant locations and easily accessible from anywhere. Further, they enable physicians to take laptops, iPads and smart phones from room to room or building to building. On-call staff can log in from anywhere via a secure virtual private network to access patient information. 

The tools exist now to give every provider and patient access to all information necessary to prevent errors and improve patient satisfaction and outcomes.

The 2008 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act mandates that the health care industry transition from being paper-dependent to Information Technology (IT). Until 2009, less than 10 percent of U.S. hospitals had adopted electronic health records even in the most basic way. Since then, 35 percent of hospitals are participating in some form, according to the American Hospital Association. The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the percentage of physicians who have adopted EMRs has doubled from a low of 17 percent in 2009. 

Studies show that this nation trails a number of other countries in the use of EMR systems, perhaps one reason the Department of Health and Human Services is offering financial incentives to hospitals and doctors’ practices that can achieve what it calls “meaningful use” of electronic records by certain dates. Those that don’t comply or fall behind in the “meaningful use” category will receive lower reimbursement rates for treating Medicare patients.

The move is a no-brainer. This nation must overcome one of the most inefficient and deadly aspects of the current system – the fragmentation of care, where treatment occurs in isolation with virtually no information about a patient’s past. Doctors’ offices, clinics and hospitals must continue to embrace electronic medical records, ensuring reliability, enabling physicians to connect with other stakeholders in the system, to share information and coordinate the delivery of care and, ultimately, to ensure better patient outcomes.

This commentary was written for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation by Albert Woodard, Chairman, CEO and President of Business Computer Applications (BCA), an Atlanta-based IT health care company that is the world’s largest telemedicine system outside of the Pentagon. The Foundation is an independent, state-focused think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

©Georgia Public Policy Foundation (January 18, 2013). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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