Electronic Medical Record: Friend or Foe?


The Resident Viewpoint:

As a recent cardiothoracic surgery residency graduate, and having trained at multiple hospitals (those with electronic medical records and those with paper medical records), I believe I have a unique perspective on electronic medical records (EMRs). With our tech-savvy culture, it is no surprise that the medical record followed suit, evolving from a paper to electronic system. It is important to note that mandates were initiated years prior, which tie electronic medical record use to Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement. Much like the old adage, “bigger is not always better,” I have found myself questioning: “Is electronic better?” This topic has been much of a debate at my training institution as well, and it deserves more attention. As such, below are outlined what I believe to be the top three positives and negatives of the EMR. Maybe this will help settle the debate: Is the EMR our friend or foe?

Votes for “Friend”:


Dr. Amanda L. Eilers, a general thoracic surgeon at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, Division of Thoracic Surgery.
Dr. Amanda L. Eilers
I am certain those who have used paper charts in the past have wasted precious time trying to find “the missing chart,” especially during hospital rounds. Gathering laboratory results and imaging films were also time-consuming activities in the days of paper charting. This never happens with EMRs. A provider can log on (essentially anywhere: office, clinic, hospital, home, and even during travel) and have immediate access to the patient’s chart, including notes, laboratory data, and imaging results. Along these lines, providers can finish notes from home as well. Portability, however, can be a double-edged sword. By having the “option” of finishing notes from home, providers can easily bring a significant amount of work home on a daily basis. With physician burnout, this is something to seriously consider as well (could sway more of “Foe” vote).

Centralized data

Having easily accessible, legible data is vital in caring for our patient population. You never have to guess what a providers are trying to write in their notes in the EMR (no hand-written notes). Most EMRs allow laboratory data, imaging, and notes to be viewed using one platform. Capabilities such as trends of vitals and laboratory values are useful to providers as well. As noted above, providers no longer have to physically gather laboratory slips or imaging films. Having centralized data for each patient saves on a provider’s time.

Standardization of orders

This has to be one of the greatest attributes of the EMR, especially when considering a teaching institution where trainees are constantly learning. Whether a provider orders Tylenol, a thoracic angiogram, echocardiogram, or a diet for a patient, the order is standardized. With medication orders, the usual dose is provided, along with other important information (renal dosing suggestions, etc.). Pharmacists and nursing staff do not have to worry about the legibility when reading and performing medication orders, for example.

Votes for “Foe”:


There is no question that there is a considerable amount of time that adds up when logging into the EMR, entering orders, and writing notes. That time does not include any restarts or rebooting that can occur, not to mention the various “warnings” that pop up during each of the processes (e.g. creatinine level for all contrasted imaging studies or patient allergies). Depending on the type of note a provider writes (free text versus standardized format) a note can seem to require endless “clicks” to get to the end. Sometimes you find yourself wishing to just have a pen and paper.

Reliance on technology

When data gathering and documentation is centered on a computer, focus often shifts from the patient’s bedside to a desk. Although “computers on wheels” and computer stations positioned throughout the intensive care unit and ward have helped move providers closer to the bedside, a significant amount of time is still tied to the computer itself. Further, review of patient information on a computer is absolutely no substitute to bedside evaluation of a patient, especially in our line of work.

Lack of single EMR

I have lost track of the number of times I have been frustrated by this fact. At tertiary care centers, we often receive patients that had initial treatment or surgery at another institution. Full detail and information from those prior visits is usually not available. As a result, many tests (laboratory and imaging) have to be repeated. As stewards of health care cost, we do no justice by simply repeating each test. Unfortunately, given the “business” aspects of EMRs, a single EMR, which all providers can access, is not in our near future. This is unfortunate, as I strongly feel it would improve communication among providers across cities/states, and reduce health care costs (one example being the elimination of repeating tests).

As one can see, EMR offers a great deal but still has serious shortcomings. In my mind, the jury is still out. Hopefully as we refine the current models of EMR we will get closer to the ideal EMR: one that continues to be portable, can house centralized data, and allows for standardization of orders but at the same time offers efficient use, thereby decreasing the time tied to a computer, and is accessible to all providers.