Blog » Between Paper and Digital: Medical Records’ Awkward Years

Between Paper and Digital: Medical Records’ Awkward Years

Created Feb 08 2017, 07:00 PM by Lippincott Solutions
  • medical records
  • Meaningful Use
  • EMR
  • Electronic Health Records

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Many Americans are unfamiliar with the particulars of the federal government’s Meaningful Use push to encourage health care facilities to adopt electronic health record (EHR) technology. But those who have visited a health care provider in recent years have witnessed its impact firsthand, most likely in a letter explaining how they can now log in to a patient portal to access medical records, request or cancel an appointment, email the office, or even pay a bill.

Between 2012 and 2015, the percentage of acute care hospitals offering patient access to electronic medical records jumped from 24 percent to 95 percent, according to an Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT data brief reported on by Fierce Healthcare.

“The percentage of hospitals that enable patients to not only view, but also download and transmit records grew almost seven-fold between 2013 and 2015,” Fierce Healthcare editor Marla Durben Hirsch continued, “from 10 percent to 69 percent.”


Good news, for sure. But as the New York Times explained in a recent report, that hardly means Meaningful Use has magically provided patients, or their health care providers, with access to a complete medical history.

“The notion of a single file, containing ‘medical records,’ is a fiction,” stated the article, inspired by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s request that rival Hillary Clinton release her medical records. “Her medical records are in bits and pieces, in doctors’ filing cabinets, hospital records departments, and in hard-to-access computers. Just like yours, probably.”


We’re in an in-between stage, the article explains. And as those in-between stages tend to be, it’s going to be awkward for a while.

“The federal government has invested billions in helping to digitize medical records, but the process is still in its infancy, with data that is often nonstandard and hard to transfer between systems,” the article explained. “And even as a growing number of medical professionals have made the transition to digital records, most of our medical histories exist only in the old world of paper, assuming they still exist at all.”

Patients up for the challenge of trying to compile a complete file of their medical records confront numerous challenges. For starters, they need to remember every health care facility they have received treatment at throughout their lifetime and individually contact them with their request.

But according to the New York Times, some “doctors and hospitals, fearful of inadvertently violating federal medical privacy laws or simply reluctant to put in the legwork, often refuse to email or even mail records to patients.”

If patients are lucky enough to receive help, the information they obtain will come in all shapes and sizes  — faxes, CDs, flash drives, photocopies — and will be complete with obscure references, partial information and, let’s be honest, sloppy penmanship.

Consequently, even the most digitized health care offices still rely on clipboards and questionnaires for patients to huddle over and summarize their medical histories on their own.


“It can be argued that some information—such as the exact date that you broke your arm back in 1982—is not needed,” points out Hirsch in her editorial. “But if patients did have their full records, it would be more likely for the patient, for a doctor reviewing the record, to discern a pattern, catch an early warning sign of a condition, identify an error or see a long-forgotten clue to a current diagnostic mystery.”

Perhaps that’s why physician William Tierney, MD, who lived in Indiana for 44 years, requested his medical records after he helped the state set up a health information exchange boasting participation from most of the hospitals there. Dr. Tierney paid $100, and for it he received a stack of papers an inch-and-a-half thick detailing his medical history.

But as he told the New York Times, when he took his medical file to his initial appointment with a new physician, he was handed a clipboard and told to fill out the practice’s standard medical history questionnaire. 

Old habits die hard.

How is your facility doing with Meaningful Use and the aim to ultimately obtain and utilize electronic medical records for all patients?  Leave us a comment below! 

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