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Digitizing patient records can mean manually entering mass amounts of data. But Paul Taylor argues it’s worth it in the long run.

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THE QUESTION

I've had the same family doctor for 20 years and I like her. But my medical records are still on paper and my doctor has no plans to convert to an electronic system. That makes me wonder how up-to-date she is with other medical advances. What could be the holdup?

THE ANSWER

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Changing to electronic medical records (EMR) is a daunting task for physicians who have been in practice for a long time.

They have to go through their old paper files and decide what must be manually entered into the new system. A typical family doctor may have between 1,500 and 2,000 patients.

"It's a huge job and a massive change in practise," says Dr. Sharon Domb, division director of family practice at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

It's particularly challenging for doctors who work alone – without the supports that come with a group practice. "If you have a large patient load, it's hard to find the extra time or energy to do it," says Dr. Darren Larsen, chief medical information officer for OntarioMD, an agency that helps doctors with the transition.

Over the years, provincial governments have offered various financial incentives to coax doctors into making the switch and a majority of physicians have moved in that direction.

But there are still holdouts and some may retire without ever embracing the digital age. In Ontario, 18 per cent of family doctors and 38 per cent of specialists working in the community have not yet made the conversion, according to Larsen.

In the future, though, using paper records won't be a viable option. "I believe that a robust and effective EMR will be more important to the physician than the stethoscope or other examination tools," says Dr. Ilan Fischler, physician-in-chief at Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences in Whitby, Ont.

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An electronic system allows doctors to search their patients' records faster and more comprehensively. That means they can quickly identify needs, such as individuals who are due for cancer-screening tests, or behind on their vaccinations. Notices can then be sent to patients, reminding them to book an appointment. With paper records, that same task would have taken countless hours of reading through separate files. As Fischler puts it, "Without the ability to organize your clinical data in meaningful ways, you can't do effective, preventative medicine."

Electronic records can also help patients better understand how their actions affect their health. For example, with a couple of clicks on a computer, a doctor can create a chart that shows how well a diabetic's blood-sugar levels are being controlled. "That's a powerful tool, especially for patients who've started a new treatment – and they can actually see the results," Domb says.

But possibly the biggest advantage of a digital system is that, in theory, it enables the easy exchange of diagnostic results and other information between the patient's health-care providers. That can help speed up treatment and avoid the costly duplication of tests. But a smooth transfer of data has been hard to achieve because many electronic systems don't talk to one another.

The provinces have tackled the integration problem in various ways.

Alberta, for instance, set a goal back in 1997 to create a single repository of key health information – including laboratory and radiology test results, hospitalization reports and lists of prescribed medications – for everyone in the province.

Although there have been bumps along the way, Alberta has basically reached its target, says Dr. Robert Hayward, chief medical information officer for Alberta Health Services.

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"It's like a public utility," Hayward explains. "Your health-care providers can sign in and access this information no matter where they are in the province."

What's more, Alberta recently opened up an online portal that will permit patients to see their health data.

It's been a different story in Ontario, where the province adopted a local approach with health data collected into regional hubs. The plan is to eventually connect the networks together. But a report released last year by Ontario's Auditor-General noted that the province failed to meet its own target of implementing "a fully operational" electronic health record system across Ontario by 2015. Ontario also seems far from being able to open up a portal so patients can view their test results – as Alberta has just done.

Larsen is a strong believer that patients should have complete access to their health and medical records – including notes made by their health-care providers.

But what do you do if your family physician is stuck in the past and is still using paper? Larsen says he would not suggest leaving such a doctor, especially if you have a good relationship. "The relationship with the physician is significantly more important than how she documents her notes."

Even so, he's convinced that digital is the best approach. Once a system is up and running, it's easier for the doctor and better for the patient.

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Paul Taylor is a patient navigation adviser at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. He is a former health editor at The Globe and Mail. You can find him on Twitter @epaultaylor and online at Sunnybrook's Your Health Matters.

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