Are Electronic Medical Records The Future?

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A patient's wristband is scanned as part of an electronic medical records system. (EN Andrews)

The heart attack patient arriving by Medevec is unconscious, and the paper medical records that came with him are costing time. Emergency physician Dr. Doug Smith must search for the patient's most recent EKG.

"They sent 6 EKGs," Smith said.

"And that was time?" asked CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews.

"Time. Time and confusion, and that's where errors can occur," Smith said.

Smith is a big believer in electronic health records. His hospital, part of Virginia's Inova chain, has a fully electronic ER network. Emergency crews wear laptops like backpacks; every patient is bar-coded. The heart attack patient has seen his last paper record.

Everything about this patient will be recorded electronically. All of his tests, all his medications, all of the EKGs tracking the progress of his heart.

"Does this reduce error?" Andrews asked.

"I believe it does," Smith said. "When you are in a paper environment, it's much easier to overlook something, to overlook a medication allergy, to overlook a lab result that you didn't see."

President Obama put $20 billion in the stimulus for computerized records, saying they'd save money and lives - and get done in five years.

There is plenty of evidence electronic records save lives.

Phyllis Hendrickson thinks it saved her life. She got an urgent call one night to go to the emergency room. A computer had flagged a lab test for high potassium. Dr. Christine Habib who was at home and on call, accessed the records, and knew instantly Hendrickson, as a kidney patient, could die from potassium levels that high.

"If we were just relying on a paper chart, I would not have had that information at my fingertips," Habib said.

But the savings from electronic records are much harder to prove. The system cost Dr. Habib's partners a half million dollars.

For Dr. Sarita Gopal, whose practice has just three doctors, the price would exceed $100,000.

"I'm not doing it," Gopal said. "Unless I get a benefit from it. Is it going to make me move faster? No. Is it going to make my patient care better? I don't see that."

High costs are the biggest obstacle facing the electronic future. To doctors at Inova, which has spent $200 million over 10 years, it's clear the President will need a lot more than $20 billion and a lot longer than five years.
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  • Wyatt Andrews
    Wyatt Andrews

    Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.