Monday, August 3, 2015

Three Important Reasons to Keep Hard Copies of Your Medical Records

This year, my annual physical was scheduled for late July. I always get the regular blood tests done a few weeks ahead so my doctor and I can discuss them face to face and renew any needed prescription. This year, though, my medication for hypothyroidism was about to run out. Once the blood test results were available, I asked the doctor’s office to renew the prescription immediately and not wait for the appointment. It didn’t get done.

1. When it comes to your medical records, the only constant is you, not your doctor or your doctor’s office.

The reason my prescription wasn’t immediately renewed was that my doctor did not have my medical records. The reason she didn’t have my medical records was that she had moved, from an office affiliated with one of our local hospitals to an office affiliated with the other.

2. Electronic medical records systems are not compatible with each other.

At some point after I had made the appointment for my physical, my records were faxed from one office to the other. Since the systems used at the two offices are not compatible, information sent by the old office will have to be entered by hand into the new office’s computer. This may take many weeks or months and will provide opportunities for data entry errors to be made. In the meantime…

3. Computer systems in medical offices are constantly being changed and upgraded.

Each time this happens there is more opportunity for error and for records to be lost entirely. Also, there seems to be no requirement that any new system be more universally compatible than the previous one.

On the day of my appointment I arrived at my doctor’s office with a fat folder containing the medical records I have been keeping over the past ten or fifteen years. (Even when she finally does get my electronic medical records my doctor will not have a history going back that far.) I had also made a separate list of my thyroid test results over the past two years so she would know immediately what dosage to prescribe. While I was there, she made photocopies of other test results that I had and she didn’t.

I was still mulling all of this over a few days later when I got a letter from a hospital affiliated with an Ivy League university on the east coast. When my mother died in 1986 of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, some of her brain tissue was donated to this facility for research. “Regrettably,” the hospital said, they had lost track of backup data tapes containing information about my mother. And, by the way, the tapes were unencrypted.

Update: After writing this, I have been thinking about how enormously destructive the transition to electronic records has been. For millions of people, years of health-related data have been misplaced, lost or intentionally discarded. Why did anyone believe we could do without paper records without first having a reliable, universally compatible electronic system in place?