A few months ago while waiting at my doctor's office, I noticed a group of young people shuffling an enormous amount of documents on the other side of the glass partition. After watching a little longer I noticed a certain order to their apparently chaotic activity. The team was fishing manila folders out of a large box in the middle of the floor and, after a quick reading, reaching out for a binder in which to store them.
When I asked the receptionist, she confirmed my suspicion: Those students were temp workers helping file patients' medical records. "It was about time," the receptionist added. "Some documents have been in that box six months or longer."
"So the results of my last blood test are in that mess?" I asked, to make sure I understood correctly.
"Your papers and mine too," was the answer. "Like everybody else's."
Memories of that conversation came to mind just days ago, when I heard on National Public Radio that many medical records may have been lost in the destruction that Hurricane Katrina caused.
I couldn't help thinking that had I lived in one of the areas affected by the hurricane, my records would probably be lost, too. In contrast, my computers' backup tapes, stored in a vault at my bank, would probably be safe.
I find it rather sad that I have a better disaster recovery plan for my computer records than for my medical history. Unfortunately, I have little control over the latter, because my files are scattered amongst all the doctors and hospitals that have ever treated me.
Should people care about losing their medical records if they were able to escape Katrina alive? Well, it depends. Losing your medical records is not a big deal if you've always been well, but people with serious illnesses may have a very different perspective. I have good friends with medical histories as imposing as the Los Angeles yellow pages. Losing that history could be a serious threat to their life and well being, as it contains treatment information, prescriptions, and all the other information that's vital -- and critical -- in case emergency treatment is necessary.
I've advocated storing medical records safely in a national patient database in this column before, and I'm doing so again.
EMR (electronic medical records) would make it easier to preserve, access, and store medical histories. Furthermore, there is an appealing financial incentive to move toward EMR, because it would improve the efficiency of the whole health care services industry, for which we all, private citizens and corporations alike, foot the bill.
Don't just take my word for it. A recent study published by the Health Affairs Journal (pay subscription required to access the full report) comes to this conclusion: "… effective EMR implementation and networking could eventually save more than $81 billion annually by improving health care efficiency and safety …."
That's no typo: Savings could be $81 billion per year. That figure, in essence, is the cost of inefficiently managing patients' records. It's an impressive figure, and could even double when you take into account the indirect benefits of EMR, such as better prevention and management of chronic disease, the study suggests.