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Actor Dennis Quaid has become an advocate for electronic medical records. In 2007 his 12 day old twins received a massive accidental overdose (10,000 units of heparin instead of 10 units), a near-fatal error that could have been prevented by the kind of bar code technology that the VA has been using for decades. (Yes, folks, sorry, a government institution was decades ahead of privatized healthcare on this.)

Quaid appeared on CBS Sunday Morning this week, in an informative piece by David Pogue of the New York Times about EMRs. It’s a bit popularized, as you might expect for network TV, but it’s a good piece, a particularly good introduction for your family and friends who might not “get it” about EMRs yet:

Some key points:

  • Quaid points out that the widely quote 100,000 accidental deaths every year from medical errors equates to a major airline crash every day. (In other industries, wouldn’t there be outrage if this happened due to failure to automate??) Being computerized could help in many cases, for instance his twins’.
  • 90% of hospitals, 83% of doctors still use paper records.
  • Few other industries still rely on paper records. “There’s no backup, no way to search them all at once, no way to harness them en masse for research.”
  • Kaiser-Permanente invested billions in an EMR system throughout its 430 locations. Example: a “WOW” cart – wireless on wheels – lets users view a patient’s medical records at bedside, even in a busy emergency room – without having to send downstairs to the medical records room.
  • Implementation took a total of 4-5 years. It was “by no means smooth sailing”; it required a “very determined investment in training.” (Elsewhere KP staff has said that 2/3 of the cost was people cost – only 1/3 was the system. (This matches what I’ve seen in other industries – and it probably matches your own experience when you get started with a new computer program!)
  • Data interoperability is a big problem. One doctor cited 60 different EMR systems with proprietary data that can’t be shared.

The magnitude of the implementation task should be no surprise, nor should it be an impediment. Consider how long it took for banking to get it right, to get everything online and develop web sites that really work reliably.

But who would want to go back to a world where things have to be looked up by clerks in paper files during office hours? So the takeaway on that is: For heaven’s sake let’s get started.

Why? Quaid’s closing quote is perfect: “This is what it’s all about, at the end: empowering the patient. You should be able to have access to your medical records at your fingertips, anytime that you want.”