Ten EHR benefits for health care practices just getting started

Many organizations remain on the fence when it comes to electronic health records. These 10 EHR benefits should help providers decide whether to proceed with EHR implementation.

For more than three years, health care providers and institutions have been inundated with information about electronic

health record technology and EHR benefits. As 2014 nears, and the deadline for participating in the federal EHR Incentive Programs comes with it, the window of opportunity for implementation without penalties becomes increasingly smaller.

Many organizations have already begun EHR implementation, while others are well on their way to completion. Despite the growing numbers, though, there are still health care organizations reluctant to make the transition. This lack of conversion could stem from a number of factors -- lack of funds, lack of IT expertise and resources, or even skepticism about the electronic format as a whole.

For those still on the fence, we’ve compiled a list of 10 EHR benefits that should serve as further incentive toward making the switch. 

Improving quality, accuracy of patient care. In general, organizations see an improved workflow as a result of the electronic model. According to Methodist le Bonheur Healthcare, EHR use has made doctors responsible for entering their own patient information. This removes the delay that was present when the information was given to secretaries to deal with and provides secretaries free time to perform more productive tasks. Furthermore, in a survey of 16,000 nurses across 316 U.S. hospitals, there were consistent reports of improvements in nursing care and health outcomes in hospitals that utilize EHR technology.

Utilizing e-prescribing. When accuracy improves, so does the quality of care. This accuracy stems, in part, from the elimination of handwritten prescriptions, which Concord Hospital found to be a common source of confusion and the NorthShore University HealthSystem reported caused 60% of medication errors across their system. Many EHR systems incorporate e-prescribing. This lets doctors contact the local pharmacy within the EHR interface. This leads to a much shorter wait time for patients who must order or renew prescriptions, and it also cuts down on errors as a result of bad handwriting.

Reducing costs. Given the amount of money spent on health care each year, EHR use offers many cost-cutting opportunities. One of the biggest sources of savings stems from eliminating duplicate tests. A recent Mount Sinai Medical Center and Weill Cornell Medical College study noted that, in 2009, the United States spent $6.8 billion on unnecessary medical testing. With an interoperable EHR, doctors can consult a patient's chart, see the results of a test that has already been administered and not proceed with a duplicate test. This saves money for both the hospital and the patient.

EHR benefits can also be applied to cutting staff and dictation costs. For example, after implementing its EHR system, NorthShore cut its monthly spending on dictation services from $4,800 to $400. In addition, with doctors and nurses doing clinical documentation, a health care organization can reduce the size of its transcription staff.

Obtaining financial incentives. The most widely discussed and available incentives offered to providers who implement EHR systems are those from the federal government. As the terms of meaningful use stage 1 state, organizations that achieve meaningful use before 2014 are eligible for financial subsidies from the federal government.

In addition, lesser-known programs offer aid (dependent on need-based criteria) to providers and institutions looking to reap EHR benefits. In one such case, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina is pairing with Allscripts Healthcare Solutions Inc. to offer free or nearly-free EHR services to independent practices and free clinics across the state.

Improving information accessibility. With electronic records, long gone are the days of scrambling to find patient documentation that has been misplaced, misfiled or lost. EHR use aids in the compilation of all patient interactions into a single electronic file that can be easily called upon and updated when needed. In addition, lab test and X-ray results can be viewed on a patient's chart in a fraction of the time that it took to send them to the doctor in a traditional care model -- and the confusion of duplicate patient records is all but eliminated. The end result is one of the clearest EHR benefits -- with all information in one location, access to patient records can be gained with just the click of a few buttons.

Sending bills quickly. Having patient records in one location also could expedite the billing process, which reduced the chances of additional charges due to missed deadlines or inaccurate information. When information about a patient visit -- tests taken, procedures performed and so on -- remain in a paper format, it takes time, and personnel, to gather that information for billing purposes.

Communicating with patients. Once learning curves have been overcome, electronic systems make for a more efficient office. This gives receptionists and administrators more time to return phone calls and schedule patient appointments. That improves the communication channel and provides greater patient satisfaction.

A growing number of EHR systems further address patient engagement through the patient portal, which lets users email physicians, send prescription refill requests, schedule appointments or otherwise communicate with office staff.

Targeting specific demographics. Also ranking among EHR benefits is the ability to sort patient data in order to pinpoint specific demographics or health problems. Doctors can then use this information to compile lists of patients who require specific preventive or chronic care treatments. Users of Aviga, from Virco Lab Inc., can develop care plans for HIV and AIDS care and research with that Web-based EHR software.

Ranking among EHR benefits is the ability to sort patient data in order to pinpoint specific demographics or health problems.

Planning for disaster recovery. Before the advent of electronic files, a fire, flood or other disaster could devastate and derail a business. In a clinical setting, the risk of losing stored paper documents is exponentially heightened, given the nature of the personal health information detailed in the documents. EHR systems not only store the important medical data electronically, but they have backup servers, which can automatically update copies of the information.

St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo. exemplifies the how these EHR benefits can improve disaster recovery planning. A May 2011 tornado leveled the hospital and dropped paper records up to 70 miles away. However, a recently deployed EHR system, complete with offsite backup servers, allowed staff at neighboring hospitals to see patient records, albeit in a paper format, when patients were transferred.

Saving trees. With such a broad array of forms for a single patient interaction -- filled out by both patients and providers -- EHR use can significantly decrease the environmental impact of a clinical setting, although the complete elimination of paper use is unlikely. 

Brita Van Fossen is a contributing writer based in Boston. Let us know what you think about the story; email editor@searchhealthit.com or contact @SearchHealthIT on Twitter.

This was first published in February 2012

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