By Genevra Pittman
NEW YORK, June 26 (Reuters Health) - Doctors using electronic health records are less likely to get sued than their colleagues who use traditional paper records, a new Massachusetts study showed.
The technology is being adopted by U.S. medical practices to decrease errors and streamline patient care and is an element on which President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul has focused.
Some researchers have expressed concern that when using new, unfamiliar systems doctors could make more mistakes, such as writing notes and prescribing drugs in the wrong patient's record.
"While there's a general belief that they're helpful ... there's also been concern that these same systems can predispose to unrecognized types of (errors) and unsafe events," said Dr. Steven Simon of the VA Boston Healthcare System.
Simon and his colleagues found that using electronic health records (EHR) was tied to an 84 percent lower chance of getting sued. Their study was published on Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine. http://bit.ly/QceVBj
"If nothing else, these results should be reassuring to physicians and to practices that there's a very, very little chance that EHRs and EHR adoption would increase their chance of malpractice claims," Simon told Reuters Health.
One researcher not involved in the study cautioned that doctors may have to wait to see the longer-term effects of electronic records on malpractice lawsuits, including whether the technology allows more medical decisions to be scrutinized in court.
Simon estimated that about one-third of U.S. practices are currently using electronic health records, which allow different doctors treating a single patient to access each other's notes and see what medications have been prescribed.
More advanced systems warn doctors if they are about to prescribe a drug that may interact with other medications a patient is taking.
IMPROVING QUALITY OF CARE
For the study, Simon and his colleagues surveyed 275 Massachusetts doctors in 2005 and 2007 about if and when they had adopted electronic health records and compared that to medical malpractice claims against those doctors starting in 1995.
Thirty-three of the participating doctors had been sued. The researchers calculated 49 claims before electronic records were adopted, including 13 resulting in a payment, and two claims after, neither leading to a payment.
"Electronic health records in general tend to improve the quality of care by decreasing the number of mistakes, and to the extent to which mistakes drive malpractice claims, you should be seeing less claims," said Dr. Sandeep Mangalmurti, who has studied health technology and malpractice at the University of Chicago.
Still, he said, there might be a period while the electronic records are being introduced that more mistakes could happen.
"There's no question there are kinds of errors that get introduced, and they're solvable," said Dr. Brian Strom, who has also studied electronic health records at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia.
"We need an iterative process that develops the product, identifies the errors, fixes the errors and keeps testing," said Strom, who was not part of the research team.
Mangalmurti said in the long run, lawyers may use data from electronic health records in court, which could also make doctors more vulnerable to malpractice lawsuits.
"Suddenly there's a lot more information available for scrutiny," Mangalmurti, who was not involved in the new study, told Reuters Health. "Everything a physician does is now theoretically accessible by everyone." (Editing by Christine Soares)