Electronic Records Could Help Reduce Malpractice

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture
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A new study provides limited evidence that physicians could make fewer mistakes on the job by abandoning paper-based medicine in favor of electronic health records.

The findings are not definitive. Still, they "suggest that electronic health records may prevent medical errors and malpractice claims," said study co-author Steven Simon, M.D., an internist and health researcher at Harvard Medical School.

According to Simon, an estimated 5 percent of physicians use the most advanced types of electronic medical record technology, while about 20 percent have some kind of electronic record system in place.

Doctors are hesitant, Simon said, because of the cost of converting to new technology and the perception that health insurers gain most of the financial benefit once the systems are in place.

Even so, he said, "there's a lot of consensus that it's actually the right thing to do and essential for our system to perform in an effective way."

Simon and colleagues sought to measure whether electronic health records might reduce medical errors that lead to malpractice suits. In 2005, they randomly surveyed 1,884 doctors in Massachusetts and then examined records of successful malpractice suits from 1997 to 2007.

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The researchers focused on 1,140 survey respondents who had malpractice histories that a state database tracked. A third of those used electronic records.

Nearly 11 percent of those who did not use electronic medical records had paid malpractice claims, compared with about 6 percent of those who had adopted the technology.

However, the difference between the groups declined to statistical insignificance after researchers adjusted their figures to take into account factors like physician specialties and the sizes of medical practices.

Meanwhile, the study authors also compared two groups of physicians who use electronic health records. Nearly 6 percent of physicians identified as "high users" of electronic medical records had paid malpractice claims, compared to 12 percent of the "low users."

It remains unclear whether the electronic records directly improved the performance of the doctors. Due to limitations of the data collected, the researchers could not determine whether paid malpractice claims declined after physicians began using electronic health records.

Nor was it clear whether some doctors simply gravitate to technology more than others do.

While the new study is not definitive, it shows that the link between electronic health records and malpractice suits "needs to be looked at more carefully," said Stephen Schoenbaum, executive vice president for programs with the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation that supports health reform.

Researchers do know that electronic records improve communication by (among other things) making it unnecessary to decipher someone else's handwriting, he said. Poor communication, he said, is often at issue in malpractice suits.

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