Sometimes, the contrast between two things is so stark you just have to laugh. That’s what happened a few weeks ago when I sat on a jury for a personal injury case.
In the past, I’d written about the need for electronic medical records—heartily agreeing with one expert who had told me, “If you walked into a bank today and the teller hand wrote your deposit in a huge ledger book and filed it on the wall, you’d be horrified. Yet doctors do something similar every day.” But this jury duty case was the first time I got to see first-hand just how our Neanderthal of system of documenting medical procedures really is.
We were sitting in the jury box when the plaintiff’s main doctor approached the witness box to testify. When he sat, he perched so many stacks of papers before him I feared that if they fell over he’d need his own personal injury lawyer. There must have been four or five stacks of hundreds of papers each. Every time the plantiff’s lawyer asked the doctor about one of his client’s procedures, the doctor spent minutes (sometimes more than five) flipping through the papers. In several cases he couldn’t find the information at all, despite looking hard. Now this was only for a lawsuit, but imagine if your doctor needed to quickly put his hands on your prior treatment to deal with a current health emergency? You could be dead before he even got the papers off the shelves. And that’s not even taking into account mistakes that can be made when doctors try to decipher their own scribbled handwriting. (Yes, more than once the doctor on the witness stand couldn’t determine what he himself had written.)
Contrast this with the high-tech way trial records were handled. When one of the lawyers asked the judge if testimony from a prior day could be read aloud, the judge would turn to the court reporter, who in ten seconds flat had it up on her machine. She’d read the testimony of a specific witness as if it had happened seconds, not days, before.
Although life and death matters are in their hands, only 4 percent of American doctors currently have all their health records in electronic form. That’s got to change—and fast. (The few dollars given to this project in the stimulus bill will make only a tiny dent.) Like pushing docs to learn laparoscopic procedures so they don’t have to slice women wide open, it’s up to us patients to demand they make the investment. Our lives may one day depend on it.
(It might have helped the plaintiff too. We decided in the defendant’s favor.)