Decades ago, patients who needed their medical information called their primary care provider. The doctor was likely the same person that they’d seen for most of their life and probably had a thick folder with test results and appointment details. But today, the average person sees numerous health care providers throughout their lifetime, from primary care appointments to urgent care visits, not to mention trips to the optometrist, podiatrist and other specialists.
The result of this segmentation is that sometimes personal health information can be difficult to obtain. Patients may not always know where to find the information that they need, which can be particularly problematic in emergency situations where they need details of their medical history quickly.
To increase access to medical records, organizations across the country are turning to electronic solutions which provide both patients and providers with a more organized and centralized place to view and update this important data.
The evolution of patient medical records
In previous decades, patient information was stored on pieces of paper kept in cardstock folders that were neatly arranged in filing cabinets. The shortcomings of this method were various. Providers had difficulty sharing records with colleagues and providing access to patients, and fires, theft or other disasters could eliminate all trace of a person’s medical record.
To answer these challenges, healthcare organizations began taking advantage of developing technology to store protected information online. Digital storage systems such as electronic health records (EHRs) and electronic medical records (EMRs) provide a place where this data can be remotely accessed by both patients and providers at any time.
The use of these digital storage strategies has increased significantly even over the past several years. According to a report by the American Hospital Association, in 2013 only 42 percent of hospitals gave patients the option to view their medical records online. By 2015, that number had risen to 92 percent.
And storing information isn’t the only patient-centered process that has shifted to an online format. Organizations are also giving consumers the opportunity to perform other tasks online, such as paying for services. In 2013, 56 percent of hospitals had the ability to let patients pay bills online. The number increased to 74 percent by 2015. Similarly, the number of hospitals that provided patients with the ability to schedule appointments online increased from 31 percent in 2013 to 45 percent in 2015, while refilling prescriptions online grew from 30 percent to 44 percent during the same period.
A report from The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology highlighted the importance of improving the record request process in healthcare:
“In the current records request process, patients and health systems are often at odds, as each struggles through an inefficient system to accomplish needed tasks with limited resources. But ultimately, these two user groups have the same goals—and shared needs. That means that improving the records request is a win-win.”
The benefits of digital record storage
Though storing medical records online certainly helps healthcare providers to increase organization, cut down on storage space and share information with colleagues, it is also extremely beneficial for consumers.
The clear benefit of giving patients access to their own medical information through patient portals and other online methods is that they become more informed. The information contained in their records empowers them to take a more active role in their own care, whether it is remembering to refill prescriptions or reviewing test results. By being able to access this information more easily, patients are able to make informed decisions and be a more comprehensive partner in determining their treatment plan.
Some research has even suggested that increasing patient engagement in this way may improve health outcomes. For instance, in an article for Medical Economics, Dr. Alexandra B. Kimball, MPH, senior vice president of practice improvement at the Mass General Physicians Organization, reported that healthcare initiatives to improve patient engagement have reduced hospital visits, improved treatment adherence rates in patients with chronic diseases and decreased morbidity and mortality.
Advanced Data Systems Corporation reported that engaged patients are additionally more likely to remain loyal to their healthcare organization, which can prove valuable for providers.
Another benefit is that keeping electronic records and giving patients access to these files can help care organizations to avoid inaccuracies. If patients are able to go online and view documentation, it will be easier for them to spot any errors in their personal information, such as social security number or address, or even in prescriptions and other components of their treatment plan.
The challenges of moving records online
However, despite these advantages created by giving patients access to their medical records, there are a number of challenges that remain for organizations who want to ensure that the technology is being leveraged effectively by their providers.
Though the use of electronic storage methods can help avoid inaccuracies, it is not a quick fix for avoiding errors. At Health Datapalooza 2016, Dr. Dhruv Khullar, a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, reported that some features, such as auto-population and the option to cut and paste information, can lead to inaccurate information. That is why it is critical for patients to be able to access and confirm the data in their medical records.
Another major challenge that arises from providing patients with access to their medical records through portals and other online methods is the risk of data breaches. The HIPAA Journal reported that in 2016 there were 329 breaches that involved 500 or more records alone, exposing nearly16.5 million records.
Many patients additionally may struggle to use the technology correctly. This means that staff and resources must be dedicated to properly educating these users to ensure that they are able to leverage their online portal.
And the fact remains that not all patients have access to this technology. According to a 2017 report by Ambra Health, about one-third of consumers cannot easily access their medical records online and 57 percent of respondents still use CDs to transfer healthcare-related information, such as medical images, a process which 44 percent reported took at least a day to complete.
The role of HIM in patient records
Giving patients access to their medical records isn’t just about creating a usable portal. It also involves ensuring that the information remains secure, but still accessible to patients, day in and day out. This is an important component of an HIM professional’s role.
Organizations employ professions in HIM to ensure that data is captured efficiently and organized in an efficient and effective manner. This can involve creating new strategies for storing data and serving as a liaison between clinical and operational departments. HIM teams are also typically responsible for protecting these records by both staying one step ahead of hackers and ensuring that proper protocol is followed by internal personnel with access to patient information. When providers and other staff members fail to comply with security recommendations, they can leave the door open for data breaches.
If you are interested in helping increase patient access to medical records through a career in health information management, consider enrolling in an online HIM program through the University of Illinois at Chicago. Through the Bachelor of Science in Health Information Management or Post-Bacc Certificate in Health Information Management, you will complete courses on current best practices in information systems, health data structures, system analysis and other important practices that will aid you in your career as an HIM professional. Contact admissions today to learn more about taking the next step in your HIM career through UIC.