Electronic Health Records Update

A popular trend in health care these days is the concept known as electronic health records (EHR). Proponents of EHR claim that the successful implementation of this scheme will streamline our health care delivery system, making it more efficient and cost effective.

The idea behind EHR is to create a confidential, secure, Internet-based repository for each person’s health information. This could include your medical history, prescriptions, doctor’s notes or the results of recent x-rays and lab tests. Not only will you be able to log on from your home computer to access your medical files, but this information will be available to your doctor and any health care provider you encounter, such as emergency or walk-in clinic doctor, specialist, etc.

The system would also let you communicate directly with your doctor’s office over a secure platform, allowing you to book appointments, renew prescriptions and update your health essentials. Plus it will be a source of the latest health information as well a means of getting in touch with support groups or health-related organizations.

Canada Health Infoway is the federal/provincial initiative established to develop electronic health records for Canadians. Although the program was announced in 2002 to great acclaim, progress has been slow and limited. So far, only two programs are currently operational – a local health network in Edmonton and a child health network in Ontario.

Some provinces, including Alberta and PEI, now have the technology in place to support such a system. But they are still a long way off from launching a fully operational model. Recently, the Ontario government established e-health Ontario, a group which hopes to get Ontario’s health records online by 2012.

But before electronic health records become a reality anywhere, there are a host of political, privacy and financial issues that must first be overcome.

One major hurdle is getting all stakeholders to come to the table and agree on a single vision. This hasn’t proven easy. In Ontario, for example, some doctors groups are arguing that online records should be accessible only to health-care professionals. Countering this are patient groups, who feel individuals should have full access to their own records. Further clouding the issue are hospital administrators, some of whom are balking at installing the provincial system, preferring instead to use their own that is currently in place.

Another major concern is privacy. Will provinces be able to build a completely secure EHR system that protects individual medical information? Ensuring that this information remains private is a must – any compromise in security would undermine the whole scheme.

And then there’s the cost. Creating and installing a province-wide system of computers, cables and servers that operates in a secure environment is likely to cost billions of dollars in development, installation and personnel costs, at a time when governments are already running deficits due to the recession.

Despite the obstacles, it’s clear that Electronic Health Records offer great promise for the future of health care in this country. The task now is for politicians, bureaucrats and stakeholders to start working together to create an effective system that capitalizes on its great potential.