The push to develop and deploy electronic health records (EHRs) over the past 15 years has brought many changes to the healthcare industry, but the work to fully realize their benefits — and harness their true potential — is not done.
The goal was to decrease costs and improve healthcare quality. While noble in concept and a notion that could revolutionize healthcare, fifteen years later, has it lived up to its promise?
Electronic records have resulted in tremendous benefits to both patients and providers. However, there is still an opportunity to continue to fully embrace the power of technology and data to improve patient outcomes and simplify the patient experience, especially regarding EHRs.
Electronic records have helped ensure that patients are educated about their medical history and that doctors have the information to make crucial — and potentially lifesaving — decisions. EHRs are no different from any new technology; there is always an opportunity to improve.
EHRs improved the patient experience
Over the past decade-and-a-half, the flow of information in our daily lives has hastened, and the desire to see information in real-time has extended to the medical industry.
Before EHRs, the doctor would have to wait for lab results, review them and then contact the patient to discuss the implication. Now, patients and doctors can quickly communicate the impact — such as the treatment plan and potential prescriptions — through the portal.
Previously, if patients had a post-appointment question, they might have a problem. They could call the office and hope it didn’t start a game of phone tag; if it did, they might not confirm an answer to their question until their next in-person appointment.
EHRs power patient portals, allowing patients to go online to assess and review their medical records, and if they have a question, they can post it and retain a digital record of the questions and answers. It also allows patients to see their appointment history and medications, request refills and schedule appointments.
The portal saves time for both patients and providers. Phone calls are now portal messages, and the time formerly expended on back-and-forth phone calls allows both sides to be more productive and informed.
Another benefit of EHRs is the portability of records.
Before, if patients wanted to change doctors, they needed to request printed copies of their records to take to their new provider — and many providers charged. Certified EHRs are required to generate a continuity of care document (CCD) that can be shared electronically.
Rural hospitals are facing an exorbitant amount of pressure, and the pressure doesn’t seem likely to subside any time soon.
Whether it’s the ongoing labor shortage, the constantly changing regulatory environment or other market forces, the headwinds, at times, seem insurmountable. Couple those concerns with the constant worries about cyberattacks and security vulnerabilities, and the moment seems even more challenging.
It’s not that rural health organizations can’t tackle any of the issues head-on. It’s more a matter of rural health organizations often don’t have the staff or resources to address this topic.
As a result, security is often an afterthought. How rural hospitals and communities focus on security presents an interesting dilemma because they’re vulnerable from a cybersecurity side and particularly vulnerable if their security posture is left unaddressed.
According to the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform, 150 rural hospitals nationwide closed between 2005 and 2019, and even more closed in 2020. While funding has helped slow the trend of closures amid the pandemic, rural providers still face challenges, partly because they have higher proportions of vulnerable patients, the elderly or the chronically ill.
However, rural health providers still have an arrow left in their quiver: technology. Increasingly, they’re turning to technology to ensure their staff can focus on delivering quality healthcare to patients without forgoing the most pressing needs and cybersecurity in particular.
Cybersecurity is the centerpiece of the path forward
Last year was among the worst years for ransomware attacks on healthcare. Healthcare is an ideal target; private health data is lucrative to sell on the dark web, and providers are more likely to pay ransoms with lives on the line.
Ransomware-as-a-service has also made it easier than ever to launch an attack, making it critical to invest in health IT platforms with built-in security solutions.
However, many rural providers cannot afford to invest in the same technology as their larger counterparts. They often face lean IT teams and limited budgets, constraining their investments and limiting what percentage of their budget they can spend on security.
Rural providers often find themselves on the unfortunate side of the digital divide, whether it’s clinician shortages or a suboptimal revenue cycle that results in a lack of capital. The result is that they may be unaware of the latest security updates, and even if they are, they often can’t implement them.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Rural providers can take steps to stay secure.