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Going Digital at the Doctor’s

By Sarah Klein

By the year 2014, the current White House administration expects doctors’ offices and hospitals all over the country to completely change the way they do business. In the next five years, President Obama is aiming to lower the cost of healthcare by moving all medical records to an electronic format. How big a job will this be? According to studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine, less than 2% of U.S. hospitals are currently using electronic records in all departments and only 17% of doctors have functioning digital systems.

The overhaul will be costly but in the long-term electronic healthcare records will save money—maybe as much as $100 billion a year, according to some estimates. They are also expected to create jobs…and lead to better care and fewer mistakes.

Information will be shared more easily between doctors and will more accessible by patients themselves. Doctors can store digital information over a patient’s entire lifetime, as offices will no longer need the physical space for stacks of notes and paper files. Access to records over a lifetime will reduce the need for repeated tests and increase doctors’ ability to track symptoms and patterns.

But progress will be slow, as most doctors and hospital workers will need to be re-trained in how to use the new technology. Getting parents involved may help. Julie Kientz, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, recently developed a digital medical record system for parents called Baby Steps.

Part social networking site, part medical database, Baby Steps allows parents to upload photos, create e-mail alerts, and write newsletters to send to family members. However, researchers also found that parents who were supplied with Baby Steps for their home computers doubled the usual collection of medically relevant information.

Doctors often ask parents to record various milestones in a child’s development, but such an assessment usually doesn’t occur until a child is due for an appointment. Recording the events as they happen, as parents did while using Baby Steps, left them much more prepared and confident during check-ups, according to doctors who evaluated them during the study.

Of course, not all parents are technologically skilled to use such a program, and the records parents keep certainly won’t be as detailed as doctors’ notes, but keeping a regular account of a child’s development certainly can’t hurt. The earlier we start recording information, the more we can acquire over a lifetime. The more information available to doctors, the better the patient care.

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