Electronic Medical Records: the Pros and Cons

Mar 1, 2009 | The HWN Team | Heads or Tails
Electronic Medical Records: the Pros and Cons

image by: Intel Free Press

So, if EMRs facilitate the delivery of health care why is it taking so long for the medical community to embrace EMRs?

In this digital age, more and more bulks of information which used to be paper-based, from library catalogues to telephone books, are digitized and stored in a central location for easy access.

An electronic medical record (EMR) or an electronic health record (EHR) is nothing but a medical record of a patient in digital form. The digital information is usually stored in a database and is accessible from everywhere via a network and EMRs contain mainstream data normally found on a patient's medical records, e.g. blood type, blood tests, inoculations, and X-ray films. And recently, the integration of patient-specific genomic information has also been proposed.

However, even after 40 years when EMRs were first discussed, there is surprisingly a strong resistance against the use of EMRs and quite frankly it's taking quite a while to catch on in the medical community. Medical information, in most cases, continues to be recorded on paper written in a patient's record at every doctor's office the patient has visited or in the medical chart hanging at the foot of a patient's hospital bed.

So, let us take a look at what EMRs are supposed to do

As expected, the proponents are primarily the vendors themselves, government agencies and most health care providers.

EMRs minimize errors

The use of EMRs supposedly reduces errors in medical records. There is no doubt that handwritten records are subject to lots of human errors due to misspelling, illegibility, and differing terminologies. With the use of EMRs standardization of patient health records may eventually become achievable.

EMRs keep records safe

Paper records can be easily lost. We have heard how fires, floods and other natural catastrophes destroy physical records of many years, data which are lost forever. Digital records can be stored virtually forever and can be kept long after the physical records are gone. EMRs also help keep records of health information that patients tend to forget with time, i.e. inoculations, previous illnesses and medications. Online services such as the Cleveland Clinic’s MyChart and HealthVault can help patients in record keeping.

EMRs make health care cost-efficient

EMRs consolidate all data in one place. Previously, paper-based records are located in different places and getting access to all of them takes a lot of time and money. Think of the amount of time and money spent on phone calls, emails, and faxes to get access to records from other places. In some cases, medical tests that have already been done are repeated all over again, incurring unnecessary costs to the patients and the health care system. In 2009, the first city-wide electronic health information exchange in the U.S. was implemented in Indianapolis. The Indiana Network for Patient Care was developed from the Regenstrief Medical Record System which is a database of 9.6 million patients. The system is expected to improve health and lower costs.1

EMRs facilitate coordination between health professionals

The coordination between primary care providers and the hospital care of patients has always been problematic. In a systematic review, Kripalani et al. evaluated the communication transfer between primary care physicians and hospital-based physicians and found significant deficits in medical information exchange.

They reported that discharge reports from hospitals frequently do not get to the general practitioners in time, resulting in decreased quality of care after hospitalization. Furthermore, the reports tended to be inaccurate and incomplete, often lacking relevant data about tests and new medications. The review recommended the use of EMRs to resolve these issues and facilitate the continuity of care before, during and after hospitalization.2

The Cleveland Clinic has been always been on the leading edge in health information technology and was one of the very first to offer secure online services. The DrConnect service provide primary care clinicians “real-time electronic medical record information about the treatment their patients receive at Cleveland Clinic”.3

EMRs translate into better treatment for patients

Efficiency and speed of diagnosis translates into better health care service for patients. Similar to the previously discussed point, correct and timely information can significantly increase the quality of health care service rendered to patients.

Take the example of one asthma center’s experience with EMR: A major benefit associated with EMR implementation was the increase in the number of children who were hospitalized with an asthma exacerbation and received an asthma action plan upon discharge. Prior to the EMR system, [only] 4% received an asthma action plan upon discharge. After implementation of the EMR system, 58% received an asthma action plan upon discharge”.4

EMRs can save lives

In many cases, EMRs may save peoples’ lives. Researchers at the Regenstrief Institute in Indiana have been working on EMRs for years which can be used in disease surveillance during epidemics and bioterrorism. And although controversial, implantable chips that store your medical records are on the way. The U.S. FDA recently gave approval to VeriChip corporation, now Positive ID to market an implantable RFID microchip for use in both humans and pets.

EMRs give patients control over their health records

Based on the principle that since it’s the patient’s medical record, the patient should control it, decide what should be in it, and who gets access to it there are currently many online EMRs available including Microsoft's HealthVault. Several prestigious medical institutions including the Cleveland clinic have synced up with HealthVault.5

Keith Toussaint, senior program manager with Microsoft HealthVault recently stated " leading hospitals like Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center are actually integrating their systems with both us and Google -- because some people like one or the other. It's a Coke or Pepsi thing." Of interest, Google Health was launched in 2009, but folded in 2011.6

Cleveland Clinic also recently announced a pilot program to monitor chronic disease management using "patient-controlled data exchange between Microsoft HealthVault, a Web-based personal health platform; a suite of widely-used digital medical devices; and eCleveland Clinic MyChart, Cleveland Clinic's electronic personal health record …system”.7

OK, what are the disadvantages of EMRs?

Not surprisingly, privacy rights advocacy groups are the main opponents of EMRs. Here is what they have to say:

EMRs threaten our privacy

In this day and age when people’s mantra is “I need my privacy”, not many people are comfortable about having their entire medical history recorded and digitized for almost just anybody to see – in other words, incursion into people’s privacy. The confidentiality of doctor - patient relationship is still sacrosanct. In addition, there is criticism over whether online EMRs satisfy the requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 for the privacy of patients' health records.

Besides, medical data can be used against a person in some cases – be it for a job application, insurance coverage or a college scholarship. Although it is against the law to discriminate against people with illnesses and disabilities, it is a fact of life that the fitter you are, the more competitive you are in the job market. The planned incorporation of genetic data in EMRs further adds to people’s fear of incursion into their private sphere.8

EMRs can lead to loss of human touch in health care

In the process of digitalization, the interpersonal aspect in health care may be lost. In handwritten hospital charts, doctors and other health care practitioners may write what they think and they feel based on their personal observations in their very own words. EMR is simply about ticking off boxes and crossing out things in electronic forms. The doctors are forced to think in categories and can seldom express a personal opinion on an individual case. Because of the lack of flexibility of many electronic reporting systems, cases of misclassification of patients and their conditions have been reported.9

EMRs are not that efficient

Yet, despite efforts in digitalization and standardization, EMRs are actually far from being standardized and not as efficient as it is purported to be. It often happens that one clinic’s EMR system is not compatible with that of a general practitioner or another clinic’s system, thus belying the claim of added efficiency.

In addition, not all users of EMRs are satisfied with the current state of the art. Although the objective is mainly efficiency and healthcare quality, one study showed that nurses in the Netherlands are not completely satisfied with their EMR implemented in 2006-2007. Furthermore, there was no marked improvement in time efficiency.10

EMRs are not safe and secure

Very few people are confident about the data protection and security of electronic data such as those stored in EMRs. Many people are not convinced that their data are safe from those who would want to misuse it.

There are cases wherein passwords and encryptions do not seem to be adequate as data protection tools. Stories of data hacking, stolen identities and blackmail abound. Even high security databases such as those run by banks and credit institutions are often compromised. This impression was aggravated by the many well-publicized incidences of data loss or breach. A few examples are listed below:

November 26, 2007, Canada. Hackers accessed medical information on HIV and hepatitis from a Canadian health agency computer.

September 22, 2008, UK. The National Health Service (NHS) reported the loss of 4 CDs in the mail containing information on 17,990 employees.

September 30, 2008, U.S. The company Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana confirmed breach of personal data, including Social Security numbers, phone numbers and addresses of about 1,700 brokers. The data was accidentally attached to a general email.

HealthVault is quick in assuring patients of the safety of their online health accounts. Access to the patient’s account is only possible using log ins and password. In addition, HealthVault assures that “all health information transmitted between HealthVault servers and program providers' systems is encrypted” and that Microsoft does it best to use the “highest standards of security to safeguard consumer health information from theft, loss, or damage.”

Implantable EMRs are not for humans

It is to be expected that although many of us are amenable to the use of RFID chips in pets, the idea of implanting similar chips in human beings is bound to raise hackles in humans. No matter what the U.S. FDA says. As expected, the introduction of VeriChip, as previously described, has been met with strong opposition.

A big opponent of the VeriChip and similar chips of its kind is the consumer advocacy group Spychip.com. In a position paper, Spychip and many advocacy and consumer awareness groups see RFID tagging (be it on your person or on the items you buy) as a major threat to privacy and civil liberties. They see the tagging as some kind of “Big Brother” operation.

Another group, the No VeriChip Inside Movement, likens VeriChip as “cataloguing” humans similar to the way the Nazis have tattooed numbers on the skin of concentration camp detainees. And popular Hollywood films on privacy incursions (e.g. The Net, Public Enemy No. 1) have added to people’s paranoia about personal data. As expected due primarily to 'privacy concerns' the ID chip has never taken off.11

The Bottom Line

Without a doubt, we have the technology to make EMRs standardized and efficient. HealthVault and similar online personalized health information accounts are enabling patients to take control of their medical records.

Where do we go from here? The main issues that need to be overcome are data security, protection of privacy and gaining the confidence of patients. It doesn’t seem evident that the use of RFID and similar tagging chips will become acceptable or popular anytime soon.

However, we live in a digital world and we cannot hold back progress indefinitely. With improved technology and data protection tools, let us hope the EMR issue will be resolved soon.

Published March 1, 2009, updated May 21, 2012


  1. Indiana University. Nation's Only Citywide Electronic Health Information Exchange: Improving Health and Lowering Costs, ScienceDaily, October 15, 2008
  2. Kripalani S, Deficits in communication and information transfer between hospital-based and primary care physicians: implications for patient safety and continuity of care, JAMA. 2007 Feb 28;297(8):831-41
  3. DrConnect, HeartHub, Cleveland Clinic
  4. Tolomeo C et al Electronic medical records in a sub-specialty practice: one asthma center's experience, J Asthma. 2008 Nov;45(9):849-51
  5. Healthvault
  6. Macmanus R, Microsoft HealthVault and Google Health - The 'Coke and Pepsi' of Online Health, ReadWriteWeb, October 14, 2008
  7. Cleveland Clinic and Microsoft HealthVault Delivers Connected Continuous Care for Chronic Disease Management, Microsoft HealthVault Customer Case Study
  8. Hoffman M, The genome-enabled electronic medical record, Biomed Inform. 2007 Feb;40(1):44-6. Epub 2006 Mar 15
  9. Icen M, Potential misclassification of patients with psoriasis in electronic databases, J Am Acad Dermatol. 2008 Oct 1. [Epub ahead of print]
  10. Verwey R, The implementation of an Electronic Nursing Record in a general hospital in the Netherlands: Lessons to learn, Stud Health Technol Inform. 2008;141:130-8
  11. Bullock P, VeriChip’s Merger With Credit Monitoring Firm Worries Privacy Activists, Wired, December 9, 2009

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