Digital Medical Records May Aid in Breast Cancer Treatment
When you go to the hospital or cancer center for treatment, do you ever get the sinking feeling that the folks there aren't... quite... sure exactly who you are?
When you went for surgery, did the prep nurse mistakenly ask you to reach down and sign your healthy left breast, instead of the right one, where the tumor was? During chemo, did you hope like crazy the chemo nurse wasn't overworked and stressed enough to pick up the wrong bag of chemicals and pump 'em into your arm?
At my last 6-month checkup with the oncologist, the nurse taking my blood pressure asked me, "How's your diabetes doing? I see you had a really high blood sugar reading last time you were here." Blood sugar? Dia-WHAT?
I've never had high blood sugar, let alone diabetes. I told her that. "Well, it says right here... you're Mrs. Hamel, right?" Yes, I told her, that's me: Hamel, P.J. "Well, it says right here in your record that you have high blood sugar and diabetes." She left me open-mouthed and wondering where THAT mistaken information had come from.
Society is gradually segueing from physical (paper) to electronic (digital) transfer and storage of information. Email has replaced paper mail almost universally in business, and in a huge percentage of households as well.
Most of us do online research, be it to compare new refrigerators side by side, find an obscure CD, or look up the side effects of tamoxifen. Many of us make purchases via the Web - think Amazon. But when it comes to your health, I think it's safe to say that most healthcare facilities still store their information in massive paper files; if you have breast cancer, your file is probably at least 8" thick.
How easy is it to quickly find the information critical to your health-care decisions in those reams of paper?
This method of storing and organizing information is both inefficient, and frustrating. Example: Six years out from treatment, I couldn't remember what stage I'd been at my time of diagnosis. Breast cancer patients I counsel always ask, "What stage were you?" They want and need to know where happy, healthy, six-years-later me was at the time of diagnosis. So I asked my oncology nurse. Her answer? "I don't know." Could you look it up? "Well..." (riffle, riffle, riffle through stacks of paper) "I can't find it anywhere." Oh.
What's the answer to the confusion, the inefficiency, the potential danger of paperwork that can get lost, that can misidentify us, that can't easily follow us from PCP to oncologist to radiologist to chemo to the regular blood draw? Electronic medical records. I was recently approached by a company wanting to use me as a beta-patient for a new storage device that's basically a simple flash drive, a mini hard-drive that can be loaded with your medical records and remains in your possession, the physician or nurse updating it electronically at the same time your hospital record is updated. You carry your drive to whatever new doctor you see, and bingo, there's your medical record: complete, up-to-date, and immediately accessible. No more mistaking you for a patient with a nearly identical name; no more confusion with misfiled paper records.
The upside? Obvious. Speed, accuracy, and efficiency. The downside? It'll take time, work and, most of all, money to digitize all of those paper files - about $10 billion, according to Democratic Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Who are, by the way, the only Presidential candidates willing to work to end the paper chase surrounding our medical records. Interested in what each has to say on the subject?
And what John McCain and Mike Huckabee think? Check out HealthCare '08. If you've ever dealt with a lost mammogram, or mislaid pathology results, you just might rank digital health records pretty high on your list of "must haves" come November 4.