Electronic Medical Records: Students Train with Key Technology

Bastyr Center for Natural Health will add a fully electronic medical record system in the 2011-12 academic year, joining one of the most important shifts in health care nationwide.

The addition will let student clinicians in Bastyr's naturopathic medicine, acupuncture and Oriental medicine and nutrition programs become familiar with state-of-the-art technology fast finding its way into more clinics, hospitals and health practices.

"Twenty-first century clinicians need to train with electronic medical records," says Bastyr Center Medical Director Jamey Wallace, ND. "Ideally, up-and-coming health care providers can learn to use them during their clinical training."

Benefits to Patients, Care Providers

Electronic medical records bring a sweeping array of benefits to patients, care providers and anyone who pays for medical care. Health policy experts see them as a key method for bringing health care costs down, for providing better and safer patient care and for strengthening public health research.

Physicians who learn electronic systems early in their careers typically find they can use them more quickly than doctors accustomed to paper records, says Dr. Wallace. He expects that each of Bastyr Center's examination rooms will have a desktop computer. Clinicians will use them to enter chart notes during patient visits, employing the widely used Epic EMR software that can suggest questions to aid physicians in their diagnoses.

Patients benefit from more reliable records that are easily shared among care providers. This can eliminate wasteful — and costly — repeat tests and X-rays. It can also minimize harmful drug interactions and other errors, which kill an estimated 98,000 people a year in the United States, according to the Los Angeles Times. It also solves the problem of illegible prescriptions and notes.

Some clinics also save money by cutting off-site document storage costs and reducing the administrative burden of retrieving paper records.

Electronic records also give public health researchers vast amounts of new data. For example, says Dr. Wallace, a Bastyr faculty member studying the effects of an herbal formula on diabetes would be able to use electronic records to find more patient results more quickly.

"Including more patients in a study can give a lot more power to that study," he says. "The statistical sample can be much stronger."

Extra Layer of Security

That also raises privacy concerns for patients. Any research project would be cleared by an institution's internal review board, ensuring that nothing makes patients personally identifiable.

And adding a well-respected records program actually adds an extra layer of digital security, Dr. Wallace explains.

"At Bastyr, we have a very robust security system for our computers," he says. "Our IT department takes data safety very seriously. The electronic medical record system will use that, plus what the software company offers. So it's a lot of security."

The Wisconsin-based Epic Systems Corporation claims a 39 percent share of the electronic records market. It's also the dominant system in Seattle — used by the University of Washington Medical Center, Harborview Medical Center, Swedish Medical Center and Group Health Cooperative — which boosts Bastyr's collaboration opportunities, says Dr. Wallace.

Potential Reduction in Health Care Costs

Promoting electronic records has been a major focus of President Barack Obama's efforts to lower health care costs. Both the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (economic stimulus) and the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (health care reform) contained incentives to add electronic record systems for institutions that receive Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement.

The Washington Post policy reporter Ezra Klein writes, "There's an argument that we're eventually going to look back at the stimulus bill's investment in electronic medical records as the most important improvement the Obama administration made to the health care delivery system — and, if the more optimistic assessments are right, as a crucial piece of infrastructure that allowed us to eventually get costs under control."

While those incentives don't affect all of the disciplines taught at Bastyr, they show that Bastyr clinical students will be working in a world of digital records, Dr. Wallace says. And he's glad Bastyr can help them prepare.