Electronic Health Records Open Doctors to New Malpractice Risks

No one is arguing that electronic health records are not the future of healthcare. Since the passage of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009, the federal government has been using financial incentives to coax physicians and other healthcare workers into purchasing and employing electronic health records. The government and most health experts agree that over the long run, these electronic health records will save on the overall cost of healthcare in the United States by eliminating duplicate medical tests, flagging common prescription errors and giving the patient more control over his or her healthcare. What many in the healthcare industry are arguing is that these electronic health records pose new medical malpractice risks that physicians should be aware of.

Unquestionably, electronic health records have the potential to improve patient safety and the quality of care delivered, but those advantages are tempered by the fact that these computer-based records store and analyze every single act a physician does during the course of their workday. The electronic health records can be audited to examine how long it took the physician to act after an abnormal lab result came in, whether the doctor checked references prior to making a clinical decision, what was said in every email, how long the doctor took to respond and even how long the doctor looked at a screen or scrolled down to read an entire document. In this sense, healthcare workers are exposing themselves to an unacceptable level of scrutiny and analysis of their use of computers that may serve to encourage malpractice suits.

As the United States healthcare system adopts (and embraces) the electronic health record as a staple of modern medicine, physicians and hospital risk managers need to be aware of the threat of lawsuits and the importance of thorough and defensive documentation. Plaintiffs’ lawyers are seizing the opportunities provided by the rapid adoption of electronic health records systems—along with the associated risks and challenges—to argue that doctors are letting these electronic systems perform the evaluation in lieu of the physician’s more thorough clinical analysis.