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The first hint of a transition from paper medical records to electronic records came after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), passed in 2009. This required healthcare providers across the United States to modernize internal record systems and create a centralized database, making it easier for doctors, physicians, and nurses to access health records.

Implementation of ARRA resulted in a painful and tricky move. For decades medical personnel recorded patient data in physical formats. Now the process had to be flipped entirely, necessitating investments in software and upskilling caregivers.

But did this move result in better healthcare management? In this article, we’ll discuss the advantages of paper medical records as well as the disadvantages of paper medical records. Later on in the article, we’ll review electronic medical records as well.

Paper Medical Records Definition

Medical records are a combination of self-reported patient information and clinical diagnostic notes traditionally stored on paper-based mediums.

Advantages of Paper Medical Records

1. Reduced Upfront Costs

With paper medical records, all you need to get started is paper, files, and a locked cabinet to store all the documents. That’s not going to set you back nearly as much as a high-end electronic health record (EHR) system which requires cloud servers and other fancy tech.

At the same time, you don’t need extensive training programs to upskill nurses and doctors on the intricacies of managing electronic health systems. These costs are incurred during implementation of an EHR, and during onboarding a new healthcare provider.

2. Ease of Use in a Familiar Format

There’s a reason why paper medical records were an industry mainstay for several decades. It’s easy to pull up information from a file, examine previous notes and medical charts, and record new observations.

If the information is written clearly, there can be fewer complications to reading charts and notes on paper. Software means you have to enter the correct keywords and user IDs to access data. Not everyone is tech-savvy and able to transition to a new technology.

3.  Physical Form Factor

Electronic medical records sound great on paper (no pun intended) but what do you do when there’s an emergency?

When time is of the essence, such as multiple trauma victims requiring immediate action, slow loading times and unfamiliar interfaces may waste precious minutes as nurses search databases using keywords and scroll past various screens to access prior records.

Paper records are advantageous in this sense: a physical file with all previous charts and medical history neatly sorted in one place. Plus, the data can be physically passed around from one person to another seamlessly. Of course, all of this depends on the previous notes being neatly written, properly organized, and readily accessible.

4. Easier to Customize

Another advantage of paper medical records is that the form is customizable to the requirements of each hospital/doctor without the need for any technical overhaul. Need a new template? Just design one on a standard text editor and you’re good to go.

With electronic health records, however, you’ll need a software developer to make adjustments to the code and back end systems. That’s both time consuming and costly.


Further Reading on Electronic Health Records

Disadvantages of Paper Medical Records

recording patient medical details

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There are some problems with paper medical records.

1. Storage Isn’t Scalable

Unlike electronic medical records stored on cloud servers, paper medical records need physical space for storage purposes.

A single cloud server could store hundreds of thousands of patient medical records, but physical files to cater to that capacity require a lot of space. And it’s not just a matter of assigning an empty room and stuffing files there — these are valuable repositories of data and require careful handling. Hence, you probably need temperature-controlled rooms and other mechanisms to ensure data integrity.

2. Lack of Backups & Limited Security

What do you do if there’s a fire that wipes out all your physical files? Or a moth infestation that, quite literally, eats up all your data? Physical files, once lost, are impossible to recover. Electronic records, however, have data backup and storage, so even if a malicious entity manages to infiltrate and get access, there’s still a fallback option.

3. Time Consuming & Error Prone

Paper medical records mean you need a manual written process which is both time consuming and comes with a higher degree of error. If you’ve ever attempted to read a doctor’s notes, you’ll know that the writing isn’t always legible and therefore can be hard to interpret.

An electronic system doesn’t have these problems — records aren’t handwritten, so the legibility issue isn’t an issue at all. Plus you don’t have to search for patient files in a physical cabinet — the software does that for you (instantly).

4. Inconsistent Layouts

While paper based records can be easier to customize, it also means that the layout and format of information can be inconsistent from one record to the next. Electronic records have a consistent format which healthcare providers can get accustomed to.

When paper based records have different layouts, it extends the time needed to get the (potentially life saving) information needed for a patient. Healthcare providers can get familiar with a few formats of data, and this reduces the time needed to find and analyze information.

5. No Clear Audit Trails & Version History

Paper records don’t have built-in version histories and audit trails. Knowing who made which edits and additions requires that the physician signs the records each time. If changes are made, it’s not easy to locate where the changes were and who made them.

This is important when auditing records or trying to find a previous physician who added information. An element of human error is always possible. Electronic health records have logs and version records that simplify auditing and tracking by automating it.

Paper Vs. Electronic Medical Record Keeping

When it comes to deciding between paper vs. electronic records, there are a few things you must take into consideration.

Electronic health records are far more secure than paper records as they’re not at risk during a catastrophic event.

It’s also easier to retain accountability in electronic health records — each entry log is consistent with a specific individual. This factor makes it easier to keep track of who is diagnosing patients and recommending medical outcomes.

Lastly, EHRs ship in a customized format that helps with things like legibility and accuracy of medical data. Paper-based records can involve human error and a loss of data integrity.

True North has the trust of healthcare organizations of all sizes for designing, installing, configuring, and maintaining their EHR systems. We leverage our 14 years of industry experience and knowledge to ensure your EHR migration is a seamless and pain-free process. Contact us today to see how we can help.