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Electronic health records an increasing source of malpractice suits

One of the signature provisions of President Obama's Affordable Care Act was the widespread adoption of electronic health records, or EHRs. A decade ago, most patient data was still stored on paper in files, making it difficult to access and to share with a patient's other healthcare providers.

In 2009, the government launched an EHR incentive program encouraging more hospitals to adopt the technology. In theory, they are supposed to make patients safer by making their complete medical data more accessible. This could prevent medication interaction errors and other basic problems. Unfortunately, the one major drawback to EHRs, even in 2015, is that they are still pretty unreliable.

Medical malpractice lawsuits often take several years to resolve, so it is difficult to track recent trends in litigation. But malpractice insurers have said that they are seeing a significant increase in the number of medical malpractice lawsuits alleging problems caused or made worse by EHRs.

A recent article in Politico gives an example of a simple error with serious consequences. An elderly woman had accidentally stabbed herself with a sharp garden tool. While in the emergency room, a nurse was entering her information into an EHR and using a drop-down menu. When entering information on when the last time the woman had a tetanus shot, the nurse chose the tab that said "unknown/last five years."

The woman had never had a tetanus shot, but the doctor reading the EHR took it to mean that she didn't need one. Tragically but predictably, the woman died of tetanus.

Even if EHR software is well-designed, mistakes can and often will be made if physicians and staff members barely know how to use it. Input errors are likely a significant part of the problem, especially in hospitals that only recently transitioned from paper records.

If you suffered harm as the result of a serious medical error, it could have had any number of causes. But asking your attorney to check for problems with your EHR may be a good place to start looking.

Source: Politico, "Electronic record errors growing issue in lawsuits," Arthur Allen, May 4, 2015

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