Is failing to use an EMR unprofessional conduct?

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It has come to this.

Some hospitals in Toronto are starting to use virtual reality in patient care (to help ease pre-operative anxiety). Yet, there are still family physicians in the province using paper charts to record and monitor the health of their patients: Not many for sure and far, far fewer than a decade ago an (an increase from 37% to 73% between 2009 and 2015).

But nonetheless, in an era where the health technology envelope is being pushed harder and faster than ever before, the most recent international comparison of use of electronic medical records (EMRs) by family doctors shows Canada continues to lag behind countries such as the U.K. and New Zealand where use is almost universal.

This finding comes from a study released earlier this year by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) in partnership with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and with co-funding from Canada Health Infoway looking at data from the Commonwealth Fund 2015 survey of 10 countries.

Maybe the time has come to seriously ask whether the acceptable standard of care for family doctors practising in Canada involves using an EMR and that failure to do so could be seen as failing to maintain that professional standard.

It is a question that was first asked quietly more than a decade ago, back in the twilight era when only the most forward looking physicians and jurisdictions were using EMRs routinely. Now, when EMRs have hugely increased functionality and proved their value in efficiently managing the health of populations, the question can surely be asked with more authority.

Of course, nobody wants to force some physicians to use technology they don’t like, don’t understand, and which can sometimes lead to gross inefficiencies in the use of their time. In fact we can imagine there may be parts of the country where a physician still cannot even purchase a reliable EMR. And we in Canada still struggle with interconnectivity and many family doctors remain stranded on ‘electronic islands’ unable to use their EMR to communicate effectively with others in their community.

But the reality is that electronic storage of patient data is here to stay whether the medical profession likes it or not.  With almost three quarters of Canadian family physicians now using EMRs for patient care the time has to come to ask medical licensing authorities whether they need to apply more diligence to observing those doctors who choose not to rely on paper records.

The failure of family doctors to totally embrace electronic records is hindering both patient care management and population health management. Even of those who use EMRs, the CIH report notes fewer than half routinely use the system for at least 2 of the following: electronic alerts or prompts about a potential problem with drug dose or drug interaction; reminder notices for patients when it is time for regular preventive or follow-up care; alerts or prompts to provide patients with test results; and/or reminders for guideline-based interventions and/or screening tests.

Surely the time has come for this to change.

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