Managing Your Practice

EHR: A progress report


I wrote my first column on electronic health records in the mid-1990s. At the time, it seemed like an idea whose time had come. After all, in an era when just about every essential process in medicine had already been computerized, we physicians continued to process clinical data – our key asset – with pen and paper. Most of us were reluctant to make the switch, and for good reason: choosing the right EHR system was difficult at best, and once the choice was made, conversion was a nightmare. Plus, there was no clear incentive to do it.

Then, the government stepped in. Shortly after his inauguration in 2000, President George W. Bush outlined a plan to ensure that most Americans had electronic health records within 10 years. “By computerizing health records,” the president said, “we can avoid dangerous medical mistakes, reduce costs, and improve care.” The goal was to eliminate missing charts, duplication of lab testing, ineffective documentation, and inordinate amounts of time spent on paperwork, not to mention illegible handwriting, poor coordination of care between physicians, and many other problems. Studies were quoted, suggesting that EHR shortened inpatient stays, decreased risk of adverse drug interactions, improved the consistency and content of records, and improved continuity of care and follow-up.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern, a dermatologist in Belleville, N.J.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern

The EHR Incentive Program (later renamed the Promoting Interoperability Program) was introduced to encourage physicians and hospitals “to adopt, implement, upgrade, and demonstrate meaningful use of certified electronic health record technology.”

Nearly a quarter-century later, implementation is well behind schedule. According to a 2019 federal study, while nearly all hospitals (96%) have adopted a certified EHR, only 72% of office-based physicians have done so.

There are multiple reasons for this. For one thing, EHR is still by and large slower than pen and paper, because direct data entry is still primarily done by keyboard. Voice recognition, hand-held and wireless devices have been developed, but most work only on specialized tasks. Even the best systems take more clinician time per encounter than the manual processes they replace.

Physicians have been slow to warm to a system that slows them down and forces them to change the way they think and work. In addition, paper systems never crash; the prospect of a server malfunction or Internet failure bringing an entire clinic to a grinding halt is not particularly inviting.

The special needs of dermatology – high patient volumes, multiple diagnoses and prescriptions per patient, the wide variety of procedures we perform, and digital image storage – present further hurdles.

Nevertheless, the march toward electronic record keeping continues, and I continue to receive many questions about choosing a good EHR system. As always, I cannot recommend any specific products since every office has unique needs and requirements.

The key phrase to keep in mind is caveat emptor. Several regulatory bodies exist to test vendor claims and certify system behaviors, but different agencies use different criteria that may or may not be relevant to your requirements. Vaporware is still as common as real software; beware the “feature in the next release” that might never appear, particularly if you need it right now.

Avoid the temptation to buy a flashy new system and then try to adapt it to your office; figure out your needs first, then find a system that meets them.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way around doing the work of comparing one system with another. The most important information a vendor can give you is the names and addresses of two or more offices where you can go watch their system in action. Site visits are time-consuming, but they are only way to pick the best EHR the first time around.

Don’t be the first office using a new system. Let the vendor work out the bugs somewhere else.

Above all, if you have disorganized paper records, don’t count on EHR to automatically solve your problems. Well-designed paper systems usually lend themselves to effective automation, but automating a poorly designed system just increases the chaos. If your paper system is in disarray, solve that problem before considering EHR.

With all of its problems and hurdles, EHRs will inevitably be a part of most of our lives. And for those who take the time to do it right, it will ultimately be an improvement.

Think of information technologies as power tools: They can help you to do things better, but they can also amplify your errors. So choose carefully.

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at

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