If you're a patient in search of the best medical care possible, it makes sense to understand some of the electronic tools doctors now use to manage your care. The fact is, health IT changes how physicians and other healthcare providers document and view healthcare information and exchange data with each other.
This slideshow offers an overview of not only the electronic tools that clinicians manage, but also some of the tools they are starting to use to communicate with patients. We'll cover electronic medical records (EMRs), personal health records (PHRs), patient web portals, electronic prescribing, electronic lab result reporting, health information exchanges (HIEs), and telemedicine (also known as telemonitoring).
An EMR (also called an electronic health record, or EHR) is a confidential record of your healthcare that your doctor, hospital, or other healthcare provider keeps on a computer. EMRs may be interconnected through a health information exchange (HIE) that contains information from many other providers who are also caring for you. Electronic prescribing software, which may be separate from or included in EMRs, allows providers to write electronic prescriptions and send them to pharmacies online.
Many providers also use secure patient portals that, in some cases, interact with their EMRs. These portals often let you request appointments and prescription refills, consult with a physician or nurse practitioner, and pay bills online. Some physicians' offices and hospitals make lab results and visit summaries available on patient portals as well. In the most advanced organizations, such as Kaiser Permanente, patients can view their key medical records on a portal. Some lab companies also use portals to provide lab results directly to patients.
A personal health record (PHR) is a computerized document that contains information about your health. Some websites allow you to create your own PHR with information you have entered or downloaded from other sources. You can request your medical records from your provider and enter the information yourself. Some hospitals and physician practices will help you create PHRs with information contained in their EHRs. In addition, some employers and healthcare insurance companies offer PHRs that are based on data from insurance claims. For a look at 9 popular PHRs, you can also check out this slideshow: 9 Popular Personal Health Record Tools.
Telehealth, or telemedicine, is a growing trend in health IT. The Veterans Health Administration, along with some private practices and hospitals, supply very sick patients with home monitoring equipment that can transmit data about their health conditions to their providers. If you have a chronic disease like diabetes, you can also find applications for your iPad, iPhone, or other mobile device that will allow you to send data such as your blood sugar level or your blood pressure to your doctor.
As these technologies are adopted more widely and as doctors and patients become better connected, health IT may benefit you in several ways. Robert Miller, a professor of health economics at the University of California San Francisco, says that health information exchanges will result in "fewer errors, more appropriate care, and more effective care." According to Miller, this will be especially apparent if you visit the emergency department. When HIEs include data from all of the providers who have cared for us, Miller says, "There's organized data immediately available on our own health and who we are and what our health conditions are."
Mark Savage, a senior attorney for Consumers Union, agrees. Among the benefits of interconnected EHRs, he says, are improved quality, safety, efficiency, and coordination of care among primary care physicians and specialists. In addition, researchers will be able to use the data to determine which kinds of treatments work best, and public health agencies will be able to detect epidemics sooner.