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Ob Gyns Outline Benefits and Challenges of Electronic Health Records

October 21, 2010

Washington, DC -- Although financial and staff-related concerns have hindered the full-scale adoption of electronic health records (EHR) by physicians, the technology can help ob-gyns improve the quality, safety, and efficiency of the care they provide women, according to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (The College). The College cautions, however, that despite the many benefits of computerized patient records, even the best EHRs are not a substitute for listening to patients.

Computerized patient records were developed to replace the individual paper records for patients that have long been the office standard. EHRs have a multitude of benefits for physicians and patients. Electronic records help standardize patient care, procedures, and follow-up as well as assist doctors in complying with treatment guidelines. EHRs also can track and report medications, improve the legibility of prescriptions, and may reduce medication errors.

"The EHR represents a major change in how the health care field does business," said Patrice M. Weiss, MD, chair of The College's Committee on Patient Safety and Quality Improvement. EHRs efficiently handle a large amount of patient data, prescriptions, lab results, follow-up reminders, and evidence-based guideline recommendations for physicians. "Some physicians may feel that using paper charts with check-off boxes is quicker compared with having to enter data into an EHR. However, the ability to retrieve patient data and to share it easily becomes readily apparent," Dr. Weiss explained.

"Another benefit of the EHR is that it can help practices with proper billing and coding for procedures so that they get reimbursed more efficiently and without the hassle of recoding and resubmitting," said Dr. Weiss.

Electronic records benefit the patient because they can help provide safer, more effective health care. For instance, the EHR can flag abnormal test results which might have been missed and can track patients who miss follow-up appointments.

While the EHR assists physicians in a number of important ways, concerns about cost, software compatibility, training, and patient privacy rights issues, among others, have hindered widespread implementation. "One of the biggest hurdles is the financial investment of purchasing these systems," said Dr. Weiss. "But there are federal stimulus funds available that are intended to help practices and medical centers install and incorporate this new technology."

In addition to cost issues, learning to use EHR systems can be difficult. "The learning curve with this new technology is steep, so providers must be patient," Dr. Weiss pointed out. Office productivity will likely decrease until physicians and office staff become proficient in using the software. Additional staffing may be necessary until the system is fully implemented, according to The College.

Corrupted data and software incompatibility are a few of the known technology-related downsides to computerized record systems. "And, of course, when computer systems crash, as they sometimes do, access to the patient records will be affected," said Dr. Weiss. For these reasons, establishing an information technology (IT) support department with round-the-clock staff support is important. IT support is needed to regularly review updates to the system, train and assist physicians in using the system, and troubleshoot problems.

Committee Opinion #472, "Patient Safety and the Electronic Health Record," is published in the November 2010 issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (The College), a 501(c)(3) organization, is the nation's leading group of physicians providing health care for women. As a private, voluntary, nonprofit membership organization of approximately 55,000 members, The College strongly advocates for quality health care for women, maintains the highest standards of clinical practice and continuing education of its members, promotes patient education, and increases awareness among its members and the public of the changing issues facing women's health care. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), a 501(c)(6) organization, is its companion organization. www.acog.org


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