Malpractice Risk May Be Increased by Electronic Medical Records

A new report suggests that while there are many benefits to electronic medical records, there may be a hidden risk of medical malpractice as well.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report on Tuesday, “Health IT and Patient Safety: Building Safer Systems for Better Care“, which calls for a new plan to minimize patient safety risks associated with electronic medical records. The efforts could eventually lead to FDA regulations and oversight over electronic medical records, the IOM notes.

Many medical experts have long hoped that the use of electronic or digital medial records would reduce medical mistakes and prescription errors, helping healthcare providers avoid preventable injuries and reduce their exposure to the risk of medical malpractice lawsuits.

Having the records available electronically could prevent misreading of hand-written data, flag potentially dangerous drug combinations and alert physicians and health care professionals to health conditions that might complicate other procedures.

However, some studies have shown that many of the expected benefits are not materializing as rapidly as expected, if at all, and the IOM report highlights other dangers that could increase the malpractice risk due to electronic records.

The IOM states that one of the problems with electronic medical software, which the report refers to as Health IT, is that there are no set standards and little tracking of their effectiveness. There have been cases of poorly written software that could increase patient safety risks.

“Although the magnitude of the risk associated with health IT is not known, some examples illustrate the concerns,” the IOM report states. “Dosing errors, failure to detect life-threatening illnesses, and delaying treatment due to poor human-computer interactions or loss of data have led to serious injury and death.”

The IOM recommends that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services publish a plan within 12 months that would minimize patient safety risks and report annually on the implementation progress of that plan. But, the report says, if a plan cannot be created in that time span, oversight of Health IT should be turned over to the FDA, which would create new electronic medical records regulations. IOM recommended that the FDA get ahead of the problem and begin mapping out those potential regulations just in case.

In either scenario, the IOM called for the federal government to work with the private sector in order to get a better understanding of the impact of health IT on patient safety.

In February of this year, a report by researchers from Johns Hopkins published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found no consistent link between the use of electronic records and the quality of care. The only category that showed marked improvement from electronic medical record use was diet counseling in high-risk adults.

A different study published in late December 2010 in the American Journal of Managed Care did find overall improvements in serious medical care when hospitals used electronic health records, but found a decrease in quality when the electronic record-keeping systems were new.

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