Will Electronic Records Really Improve Health Care?

"You can set a system up to alert you if someone hasn't had a mammogram in a while," said Latare. "One of the receptionists here in my clinic was going to have elective surgery and her surgeon noticed that she was due for a mammogram, because the system alerted him that she was due."

The woman underwent a mammogram and, as it turned out, she actually had an early stage of breast cancer. Latare said the test caught it early so the cancer was fairly simple to treat.

"The surgeon probably wouldn't have gone through the chart to find that out," she said. "In her case, it probably saved her from having been diagnosed as a higher stage of breast cancer."

The new records do take some getting used to, however, noted Latare.

"One of the things that was hard to get used to was how much information that you had at your fingertips," she said.

On one hand, Latare said it cleared up the constant problem of a foggy memory: Was that surgery last year, or two years before? Did my child get the latest immunizations or was that the ones before?

"A lot of times people forget," she said. "You'll say, 'when was your last pap smear?' and they'll say it was last year, but you look it up and it was three years ago."

Yet on the other hand, Latare and her colleagues said they sometimes felt their heads swirling in the deluge of information.

"That's the thing that you have to learn -- you could spend an hour going through every single patient's chart. It's about learning how much information you should review. It's learning how to filter and keep organized."

Latare said the learning curve goes beyond reading electronic medical records and into how doctors do their job. For the first time on the job, Latare found herself spending a significant amount of time typing.

"For some doctors change is not easy. It's stressful. They're used to being efficient in a certain way," she said. "It takes a couple months for them to get back to their previous productivity levels."

All in all, Latare said the change was worth it. She said things are less likely to be lost and not only is the information all at her fingertips, she can show her patients charts of their progress over time.

"We would never, ever want to go back to paper," she said.

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