May 20, 2009

Electronic Medical Records: Are They Worth It?

President Obama has been saying that reforming inefficient healthcare technology will save time, money, and (ultimately) lives. Recently, a number of people have been trying to refute the point, saying the projected savings are overblown.

DC’s safety net has become one of the first in the country to try and strategically bring all the different community clinics over to a standardized system, eClinicalWorks. Bread for the City is one of six clinics to switch to eCW, and the reports are just coming in. So do electronic medical records live up to the hype? The short answer is yes.

One of the most notable savings revolves around our volunteers. In the past we relied on a lot of volunteers consistently coming through the Medical Clinic to wade through the endless administrative tasks (creating/finding/filing charts). If a volunteer didn’t show up one day, we were suddenly in a pickle. Though our volunteers are the lifeblood of our organization, relying on an inconsistent workforce to catalogue sensitive data means that there are elements of inefficiency and human error. Since transitioning to eCW, our efficiency has gone through the roof. With our two dedicated administrative volunteers coming in one day a week, we’re able to keep up, and if one of our patients goes to a participating hospital or community clinic, their information can be instantly sent over, saving precious time if there’s an emergency. It’s a miracle!

That savings of time is also a savings of money. The volunteers who used to file charts are now helping with nutrition outreach to medical clinic patients, allowing our healthcare providers to disseminate nutrition information to more patients more quickly. Since our files are more accurate and easily archived, we are able to receive accurate Medicaid reimbursement rates for all of the patients we see—a welcome (albeit small) revenue stream in this tough economic climate.

That’s not to say it wasn’t a huge pain during the transition. For months, our providers’ desks were almost walled off behind massive stacks of paper records labeled “TO BE SCANNED.” On many different occasions I thought Lisa Johnson, who runs the administrative side of our clinic and did a great deal of the work for the transition, was simply going to die. And every new system has kinks. But now that the transition is complete, the benefits are remarkable. Though I can’t speak for the healthcare system in the macro, Bread for the City has undeniably benefited from the switch to electronic records.

Many thanks go out to the DC Primary Care Association for funding this step forward, and to our many generous donors who make all of our work possible.

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