Wed, Aug 20 2014
A decade ago almost all doctors kept paper charts on every patient. That is changing quickly as laptops become as common as stethoscopes in exam rooms. Recent hacking attacks have raised questions about how safe that data may be. Here are some frequently asked questions about this evolution underway in American medicine and the government programs sparking the change.
Are my medical records stored electronically?
At least some of the information you share with your doctor or any hospital or clinic where you’ve been treated is probably stored on a computer. It's pretty common for most hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices to digitally store your basic information including your name, address and insurance company, the same way many retailers do.
It's also likely that at least some information about your specific medical conditions is linked to that data. Health care providers have been using computers to help them get paid for decades. That means many computer-generated bills sent to you and/or your insurance company contain medical details like the conditions you were treated for, prescriptions and referrals to specialists.
Where things are really changing quickly is in the use of electronic records for day-to-day patient care. Until recently, most doctors used paper charts to record information generated during patient visits. But the 2009 economic stimulus package offered doctors and hospitals tens of thousands of dollars each to help buy computers and software designed to replace paper charts. Adoption was slow at first, but as of June most hospitals and close to half of all doctors in America report that they are using systems that qualify for those payments. Some are aggressively digitizing older records stored on paper, others are not.
Does the Affordable Care Act require doctors and hospitals to use electronic medical records?
No. The stimulus package, which pre-dates Obamacare, offers doctors, hospitals and some other health providers money to help them upgrade from paper to digital records, but the Affordable Care Act does not. Nor does it require digital record use.
But the health law does offer bonus payments to health care providers that can prove they're more efficient and not unnecessarily duplicating tests and procedures. Electronic records make that easier. The ACA also includes penalties for those who fail to meet performance measures such as keeping people from returning to hospitals because they weren't treated properly the first time. More hospitals are starting to use electronic records to track patients, coordinate inpatient and post-hospital care and to record how well they're performing in an effort to win bonuses and avoid penalties put in place by the ACA.