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Are Electronic Health Records Safe, Secure? Wrap_Emily Farah_SOC.mp3

The increasing use of electronic health records (EHRs) raises a concern for patient safety and their sensitive medical information.  Some claim it's just as easy for a doctor to write a prescription for the wrong drug on paper than it is to pick the wrong medication from a drop-down menu on a computer.  Critics of EHRs claim that patient safety and confidentiality is compromised when records are put on a computer server.

The Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority  is an independent state agency created in 2002 and charged with eliminating medical errors.  The agency has completed a study examining the pros and cons of EHRs.  The study showed that EHRs will be beneficial to hospitals, doctors, and patients over time, but some issues have to be resolved before all paper medical records become electronically-based.  Bill Marella, director of the agency, said most of the troubles with EHRs are the same problems seen with the traditional paper method.

“There are many benefits that in the long run will wind up outweighing the short term problems that we’re seeing,” Marella said, “but in the short term we are seeing a number of safety issues that hospitals and the [information technology] vendors need to deal with.”

Marella said that some of the short-term issues seen with EHRs are technical, like software bugs, but the majority of the problems start with the user.

“The vast majority of the reports that we’re seeing are much more about the human elements and user support, user training, and designing these systems incorporating human factors principles into the design and implementation,” Marella said.

Marella said the evidence does not show that electronic health record problems would be more frequent or more severe, but the number of people impacted by an e-problem could be more than what would be experienced on paper.

“One thing I think you can say is that the scale of problems has changed,” Marella said.  “You can have a single problem with an electronic medical record that can cascade to many, many patients, whereas with paper records some of those errors may be more isolated.”