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Reports show fragile state of electronic health record systems

Electronic health record systems are often touted as a way to reduce medical costs, make personal health information easily accessible for patients and increase quality of care.

Not so fast, according to recent reports.

The push for electronic health record adoption has increased the number of health care data breaches and the costs to clean up after them, according to a report released by the American National Standards Institute. The report notes that even if an organization has effective policies in place to meet electronic health records system compliance, a lack of both resources and leadership support is a barrier to security.

Complicating the problem is that it’s no longer just traditional health care providers and billing organizations handling the data. More entities outside of hospitals and doctor offices (such as urgent care facilities, retail store clinicians and telemedicine offices) are using patients’ personal health information, increasing the likelihood for a breach.

The impact of a data breach can include monetary damage not only to the individual patient but also to the facility where the breach occurred, if the victim seeks reimbursement or sues for damages. The health care facility can also be subject to huge fines for violating compliance regulations.

Another recently published study, this one from HealthAffairs, is also related to the unexpected costs surrounding electronic health records systems, but of a different sort. The study examined the assumption that electronic access to patient test results and medical records saves money by reducing diagnostic testing.

HealthAffairs researchers analyzed the records of 28,741 patient visits to a sample of 1,187 physicians. They found physicians’ access to computerized imaging results was associated with a 40% to 70% greater likelihood of ordering (often expensive) tests. HealthAffairs researchers said the findings raise the possibility that electronic access does not decrease test ordering and may even increase it — as well as costs — possibly because of system features that serve as enticements to ordering.

So which is it? Are electronic health records system mandates a way to decrease health care costs, or are they actually making health care more expensive and personal information more vulnerable? The answer is somewhere in between, but providers need to be more vigilant about making their systems more secure and compliant with regulations. If not, the push to digitize personal health records will continue to cost patients and providers privacy, a lot of money and, ultimately, their reputation.

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