How to Protect Yourself from Medical Records Glitches

How to Protect Yourself from Medical Records Glitches

Technical problems are everywhere, but here's how to stay safe.

As more providers start using electronic health records (EHRs), the dream is that it'll be easier for everyone to work together and share information—from the emergency room to your doctor's office to the pharmacy and billing office. The goal is to connect all the players on your healthcare team, all in your best interest, to make sure you're getting the care you need. Simply put, EHRs are the way of the future.

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But there's a dark side to EHRs, too. Like any new technology, they can lead to confusion, glitches and errors. And surprisingly, even EHR systems that have been in place for many years can have these problems, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.

What's at the root of the problem?
Researchers looked at 100 EHR safety investigations done within the Veterans Health Administration, which has been using its current electronic records system since 1999. Data from 55 different VA facilities showed that most safety issues were due to technical problems, such as system failures, software glitches, false alarms and “hidden dependencies.” Hidden dependencies happen when EHR updates accidentally lead to problems somewhere else in the system. Other safety issues included poor use of technology, such as data entry errors.

In the study, one example was a pharmacist who made a data entry error and then overrode the drug warning that came up—thinking it was a false alarm. This led to a patient receiving too much of a certain drug, a scary scenario for both patients and providers.

So what's the solution? Researchers from the VA study urge healthcare groups to keep the potential downsides of EHRs in mind at all times and to manage them with strong, internal systems designed to prevent, find and correct safety issues. Their study also shows that even long-standing EHR systems need ongoing testing and error-checking to be sure they're working and being used correctly by staff. While hospitals and healthcare facilities already take many steps to protect patients, the VA study is a reminder that new layers of safety will always be critical when it comes to new technologies.

5 ways to protect yourself
Errors sometimes happen, but being a proactive patient can help you limit them. Here are five ways to reduce your risk of EHR-related errors and protect your health.

  • Understand your condition. Knowing as much as possible about your treatment plan—for example, what your medications are, how much to take and when, and what to avoid—can help you recognize errors on your own at the pharmacy or during another step in your care.
  • Ask questions and raise concerns. If something doesn't sound right, or if you simply aren't on the same page with your provider, speak up. This is especially true when your doctor or nurse is asking you to sign a consent form for a procedure or treatment.
  • Request access to your records. Some offices and labs will give people secure access to their records online. You can also request a hard copy, but the office might charge you a small fee.
  • Keep a current, complete personal health record—and understand how a personal health record is different from your medical record
  • Update everyone. Don't assume that your providers have all the information they need. Be sure to tell your primary care provider about any changes in medications or overall health since your last visit, so he or she can see the entire picture of how you're doing and better coordinate your care.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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