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How Do
EHR Systems Reduce
Medical Errors?
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A medical error: it's a nightmare scenario that no physician or medical practice wants to face. While most healthcare professionals and a majority of consumers/clients/patients realize that doctors are human beings and sometimes make mistakes, most take measures to ensure accuracy in all aspects of a patient care scenario.

Unfortunately, thousands of people do experience some form of medical errors and even preventable deaths on an annual basis. According to a recent study performed by Johns Hopkins, medical errors are now ranked as the third contributing cause of death in the United States. Alarmingly, based on data accumulated during the eight year study, medical errors contribute to approximately 250,000 deaths annually.

Another study by the CDC emphasized that adverse drug events alone cost over $3 billion a year. As of 2014, adverse drug events were the sixth leading cause of death on a national basis.

The focus for today is catching potential errors before they happen, especially medication errors that can be prevented through medication reconciliation.

Today's EHR systems support automated artificial intelligence, sometimes sifting through massive patient care files. Not long ago, a patient with a chronic condition might have a paper record composed of hundreds of pages. Today, an EHR system can quickly sift through data to analyze current and past prescriptions, laboratory tests, treatment plans, diagnoses, medical procedures, and even foods that a patient should stay away from when taking certain medications prior to or following a medical treatment or procedure.

These statistics emphasize that the majority of such medical errors are not implied to be caused by lack of concern, inattentiveness, or outright malfeasance on the part of physicians, but rather the often confusing lack of communication and access to complete medical records and histories.

Development of electronic health record/electronic medical record technologies can serve to reduce medical errors through more coordinated care enhanced by data sharing and immediate accessibility by any member of a patient's health care team.

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The most common medical error?

Errors happen in patient care. One of the most common is medication error, the risk of which increases when a person is seen by more than one physician. This is especially common in patient care scenarios where multiple teams or specialists see one patient. This also frequently results from deliberate withholding of information by a patient who declines to divulge that they are being seen by more than one physician.

When it comes to medication errors, wrong dosages, interactions with other drugs (prescription or over-the-counter), or inadvertent prescribing of the wrong drug are not as uncommon as many of us would like to think; the good news is that most of these errors can be prevented.

EHR technologies can help prevent medical errors by flagging potential drug interactions and/or adverse reactions. The majority of drug prescription errors are caused by:

  • Prescription of drugs that interact with other drugs (prescription or over-the-counter)
  • Common foods that a patient may consume while taking a particular medication
  • Prescribing a drug to a patient who is allergic or who has experienced an adverse reaction to it
  • Failure to fully recognize and consider potentially dangerous side effects based on a specific patient's medical history
  • Incorrect dosage or recommendations for frequency of dosage

A number of features integrated into EHR systems today can trigger alerts for drug/food or drug/drug interactions, as well as double check for allergies or previous documentation of adverse reactions to a drug.

EHR database features can also aid physicians or other care team members to quickly research any drug, its side effects, and/or contraindications. Such systems often provide formularies for approved and standard dosage and administration of specific drugs.

Recent data suggests that reconciliation tools and options in EHR systems can reduce medication errors by over 50%. Some of these systems used by hospitals take advantage of split screens that list pre-admission medications and compare them for potential interactions or dangerous adverse reactions with potentially new medications that may be prescribed for a current treatment or procedure.

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EHR systems reduce medical errors when it comes to preventive services

Due to changing regulations in healthcare and shortages of physician care in many areas, doctors are starting to see greater numbers of patients. Using paper charts, it would be difficult for any physician to keep track of preventive services for any given patient, let alone hundreds in one geographical area.

Using an EHR system, physicians are continually updated regarding monitoring and follow-up care. Automated reminders for services such as mammograms, annual flu shots, and pediatric vaccinations can help reduce the number of patients "falling through the cracks.” Patients diagnosed with chronic diseases like diabetes must be carefully tracked, monitored, and followed up with for timely interventions that also follow certain treatment protocols as designated by government regulations.

Physicians using an EHR system are often able to set recurring alerts for specific patients. To ensure that this option is available, look for a system that enables configurable or customizable options.

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Reducing overlap with testing procedures and missing lab results

Repetitive testing procedures not only threaten reimbursement rates, they can cause confusion resulting in patients missing vital tests. Missing lab results are also of major concern to physicians. An EHR system is capable of tracking consultations, tests, referrals, and lab results that help reduce medical errors in this regard. EHR software can alert to pending and completed lab tests and specify whether or not results fell within normal ranges, ensuring that nothing slips through the cracks.

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Conclusion

Of course not all EHR systems are created equal. It's important to choose a system that provides not only flexibility, but ease of use, interoperability, and functionality. Follow basic guidelines when choosing an EHR system that can truly help reduce medical errors.

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Choose a system that has the capability of updating databases and clinical guidelines on at least a quarterly basis. A physician should be able to customize the system with specialty-specific alerts, warnings, and "ticklers" for chronic care patients.

While EHR systems continue to advance, it’s important for healthcare providers to realize that the machine can only go so far. Human attention and response to alerts and warnings must be addressed in a timely manner. In this way, medical errors can be reduced.

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