From EMR to Paper to EMR

I can’t help myself from telling patients how things really work in health care. But I feel they have a right to know.

When I see new patients their jaw usually drops when I sit down with them next to the computer with a stack of papers held together with a rubber band or a gigantic clamp and with yellow sticky notes protruding here and there with words like LAB, ER and X-RAY.

Patients always assume that medical records transfer seamlessly between practices. They don’t, even between clinics that use the same EMR vendor. The stack of papers gets scanned in, as images or PDFs, but they don’t appear in searchable, tabular or report-compatible form. Often, they don’t each get labeled, but are clumped together under headings like “Radiology 2010-2017”.

In one of the clinics I work in, a Registered Nurse enters patients’ medical history in the EMR before each new patient’s first appointment. In the other, it is my job.

In both cases, only a fraction of he information is usually carried over from one EMR to the other, and the patient’s life story risks getting diluted, even distorted.

It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why things work this way:

Once upon a time, the Rulers of a great country handed out money to all the medicine men so they could start using computers to document what they did (and what they charged for, which was the real reason the Rulers handed out money the way they did).

This was a gift, not only to the medicine men but also to a lot of computer companies, who quickly geared up and made EMRs that the medicine men needed to buy before the deadline the Rulers had imposed.

Soon the medicine men gave all their newfound money to the computer makers. One of the things they thought they remembered hearing about was “interoperability”, but the computer makers were no fools. By making it just about impossible to transfer data between EMRs, the computer companies figured they could keep their respective customers hostage, because no matter how much they hated the slapped-together systems, it would be too costly to start over with another system.

Eventually, each vendor secretly hoped they would end up with the most users and thereby becoming the industry standard when the medicine men and the Rulers caught on to the lack of interoperability.

That, I explain to those of my patients who were around for it, is like the early days of VCRs – Betamax or VHS – more than 100 times over or, think about it, 100 times worse.

(I wrote this on April 1, but I’m not fooling…)

1 Response to “From EMR to Paper to EMR”


  1. 1 Bob Burns April 5, 2018 at 5:33 pm

    What you fail to mention is that the medicine men were invited by the rulers to play a leading role in how those computers would be used and how the information they held would be aggregated to improve patient care – but the medicine men not only couldn’t agree among themselves, but worse, couldn’t agree across provincial boundaries. Plus it was a way, so they thought, to improve the financial health of their brethren. So while the greed motive you identify certainly featured prominently in the present chaos, it wasn’t limited to the rulers or to the EMR developers (many of whom were medicine men themselves!)


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