Your Medical Records Are Going Hi-Tech

We’ve all heard about wireless technology but what about “paperless”? Many hospitals are nixing paper altogether – meaning that they’ll no longer keep written charts of each patient’s visit, conditions, medications, etc. and instead rely on computerized technology.

“These technologies really have the power to transform health care,” says Wanda Moebius, vice president of policy communications at AdvaMed, an association representing the medical technology industry.

One major group that has made the switch is The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The department has one of the largest electronic medical information systems, known as the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA) and allows over 1,000 VA hospitals to communicate and share records with each other.

You can expect many other hospitals to follow in the VA’s path. In 2003, President Bush announced the Health Information Technology Plan, which proposes that the majority of American health records must be made electronic by 2014, and included in a national health-information system.

Currently, about half of all hospitals (mainly large urban healthcare campuses) feature fully or partly-integrated electronic information systems, meaning they’re not entirely “paperless.” Due to high costs, many of the smaller and rural hospitals are still raising funding in order to purchase the software and necessary equipment for the new systems.

“I don’t believe that healthcare will ever be totally paperless,” says Rick Ellis, Vice President of Business Development and Intellectual Property at Precision Dynamics Corp., a medical technology corporation. “There is a trend toward computerizing some aspects of patient care, but adoption is slow and the healthcare experience is too broad to expect full computerization.”

If your health care system does have the funding to afford some of the new information technologies, there are several “paperless” systems they might implement – here’s what you’ll soon experience and what you should expect from each:

Electronic Medical Records (EMR) or electronic health records (EHR)

  • What they are: Instead of existing on paper, electronic medical records are kept in a computer system and contain the same, if not more information as your paper records (i.e. allergies, surgeries, medications, test results). This speeds up the record-taking process, helps to eliminate potential errors such as incorrect medication prescriptions or repeating unnecessary procedures, and can better help aid in the treatment and diagnosis process.
  • You need to know: At the moment, each hospital and clinic uses its own or a specific software system, which might not be compatible at a different hospital. Additionally, there is no national database of medical records so if you’re traveling and need to seek medical attention, the doctors assisting you might not be able to quickly access your records.

Patient Kiosks

  • What they are: Soon, you’ll see kiosks or computer stations when you enter an ER or the waiting room of your doctor’s office, where you'll type in your information to check in. Moebius describes the technology (she says that even her orthodontist’s office has this system!). “They’ve put this in for customer service. It helps keep track of how long [of a time] people spend in the waiting room. It’ll mark the time from when you were seated in the waiting room to the time you arrived in the dentist’s chair, for instance.”
  • You need to know: Have your insurance card, your personal medical history, allergies, list of medications with you, especially for your first visit. Filling out all of this information might cut down the paperwork at future visits and also limit your time in the waiting room.


  • What they are: “Patients are already very familiar with the wristbands,” says Moebius. "The newer version has a barcode on them," which allows doctors and nurses to scan the barcode and then retrieve the patient’s chart and information.
  • You need to know: Remember to cut up your wristband when you’re finished with your hospital stay. That barcode is the golden ticket to all of your personal, health, insurance, and perhaps even financial information!

Writing Tablets

  • What they are: At your next doctor’s appointment, you might see your doctor holding a wireless writing tablet. This tablet is used for taking notes, writing prescriptions and orders for tests, treatments and other procedures.
  • You need to know: If you’d prefer a paper version of your lab results, prescriptions, medical records and so on, remember that it is within your HIPAA rights to request a paper copy of your records and test results. Keep all paper copies together in a folder in a safe location.

What About Privacy?

One concern about these changes is the protection of privacy and more importantly, the overall security of these records. If you are concerned about your own privacy or security involving your health data, contact your health care providers and ask them:

  • Who is allowed to access my data? (Similar to your paper records, those allowed to access your records might include the hospital’s or doctor office’s computer system administration, medical staff, and insurance companies).
  • What additional measures can I take to secure my health data? (They might refer you to a HIPAA form that you sign at your first visit. More about HIPPA here.)
  • What other additional information and brochures do you have so I can read more about how you keep my health records private?
How Can I Learn More?

Ask your hospital or doctor’s office for information about any policy or technology changes (you might also find this on their website). If your doctor’s office is changing systems, understand that there might be delays or other problems as they adjust to the new technology.

The information provided here is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice. These tips are from doctors, nurses and people who have shared their real life advice; always check with a doctor, pharmacist or other appropriate medical professional you trust before making any healthcare changes.

Updated: 5/2009