As technology works its way even more into daily life through apps and social media, you may be hearing more from your doctors about electronic health records (EHRs), too. Curious about EHRs? Frustrated by what seems like another layer of protected communication to use? Learn all about these now-common website portals and how to use them to improve your health.
What are electronic health records?
EHRs are the electronic equivalent of paper files of paper records. Instead of storing the details of every appointment, call, diagnosis, billing submission, test result, and more in a cabinet with many other people’s records, medical offices now are using secure computer storage to keep a detailed history of interactions with patients.
The benefits of EHRs — such as better record quality, efficient recordkeeping, and safe storage — were first realized in 1991 by the Institute of Medicine. Early EHRs were used by the medical offices to track patient care and make chart access easier. Since then, electronic recordkeeping has come a long way; now, patients are becoming more involved in their records and their overall care, too.
Why are EHRs so important to use?
When medical groups use EHRs, many aspects of patient care are streamlined, which makes an office visit or phone call easier and can even reduce errors and keep patients safer and healthier. At their best, EHRs avoid lost paper records and result in better reminders for appointments, faster refills, easier access to lab results for you and your doctor, shorter wait times on the phone or at the office, and fewer errors like duplicate prescribed drugs.
In fact, EHRs have so many potential health benefits that doctor reimbursement, or how much they are paid for the care they provide, is becoming tied to this type of technology use. Called “meaningful use,” objectives like engaging with more than 5 percent of patients regularly through a portal and helping more than half of patients use health information online are required by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) for doctors to receive Medicare insurance payments.
How do I benefit from using a patient portal?
The reasons for you to use an EHR through a patient portal are numerous. You can:
- Have (typically) free, easy, and printable access to diagnoses, treatment plans, and lab results
- Correct mistakes in your medical history, such as missing or incorrect allergies or medicine names
- Schedule appointments without waiting on hold — one of the top reasons people like EHRs
- Email a nurse or support staff to ask questions about symptoms, results, or insurance billing without calling or visiting the office
Patient portals are especially useful if you have a chronic condition: you may not need a lot of medical appointments but might have questions between annual checkups. Communication electronically also gives you more control over the access to information, because staff can write messages to you directly in a secure, private space instead of leaving voicemail messages for callbacks, for example.
Why are there so many different portals or websites?
Like any business product, electronic health record software thrives on competition and variety. Although EHRs can improve office workflow and patient communication, they are costly, and each software program offers different options. If your doctor is part of a larger medical group, he or she may use software that connects you with other specialists you see, too. If you visit an office that has one or just a few doctors, though, they may choose to use their own, smaller, program.
Medical practices (sets of doctors in a group) want you to connect with them electronically to keep your information more private than it can be on paper and separate from other online accounts that you may have. In this way, your personal medical details are safeguarded and exclusively used by you and your doctor’s office.
Patients often get discouraged by the number of websites and passwords to remember, or simply forget about the EHR after an office visit ends, and don’t sign. But using the EHR portal is worthwhile because it frees up time for more detailed conversations when you do see the doctor.
How do I keep track of all of my portals and test results?
Whether you have one or many EHRs, you can maximize their benefits if you take notes, too. Remember that EHRs are distinct from personal health records. Personal records are yours alone; they are private and can be in any form you prefer. If you have a lot of specialists, and a lot of EHR portals, keeping a notebook on paper or in a personal app (like the ICE Contact app) with your personal health files can help you keep track of it all. Your notebook might include
- Each specialist’s name, address, phone number, and web portal
- Your username and a private password reminder for the portal
- The reason you see that specialist
- Any medicines prescribed by that specialist
Even though your doctors might not be connected in the same portal, these online EHRs still make it easier to share info between specialists and avoid lab work duplications, losses of records, and errors in treatment plans. Instead of waiting for one doctor to fax paper records to another, you can take charge of your own care, too, by viewing your test results and health information online and emailing it to (or printing it out for) any specialist who needs it.
Remember: The most important part about having an EHR is simple: signing up to improve your access to health care and information at no cost to you and with no special skills needed.
See more helpful articles:
Nicole Van Hoey is a freelance writer and editor for consumer and professional health publications. She underwent open heart surgery in August 2016 and writes about the experience, including cardiac rehab, for HealthCentral. She can be found on Twitter @VHMedComm and writing about family life after heart surgery at Bloglovin’.