Say Aaaah: Why Doctors are Using More Paper Than Ever

Doctor-writingThe rush to electronic medical information was prompted by the best intentions…and yet paper has become the new lingua franca for doctors.

“In 2009, fewer than 10 percent of hospitals had any kind of electronic medical records,” writes Abigail Zugers, M.D. in The New York Times Well blog. By 2014, 75 percent had at least a basic system, all rushing to comply with the mandate for electronic transactions contained in the Affordable Care Act.”

“The data do not indicate how many, like ours, are now awash in the products of competing vendors whose proprietary coding specifically impedes inter-system collaboration. Nor are there yet any algorithms for untangling the wires of a system as rich in different languages as ours,” Dr. Zuger continues.

And while she asserts that no one in the medical field debates the goals of electronic medical records – namely to “reduce paperwork and administrative burdens, cut costs, reduce medical errors and most importantly, improve the quality of care” – it falls to paper to make this possible.

“We succeed with the simple expedient of paper,” Dr. Zuger asserts.

“Paper has become our lingua franca, our fallback and standby. In our new digital universe, we have peculiarly seen a retro explosion of paper. We may no longer write paper prescriptions, but we fax or hand-deliver paper versions of our electronic dealings routinely now. When you don’t know what electronic language the receiver speaks (and you never do), you go with paper,” she explains.

Reams and reams of paper, if Dr. Zuger’s descriptions of the typical day at the office are true to form, and we’ve no reason to believe they’re not.

It’s fascinating that even as patients are getting more accustomed to using online patient portals, health care providers still rely on printed summaries and reports to bridge the gap between proprietary and incompatible systems.

Paper, meanwhile, has precious few compatibility issues. You just pick it up and read it. Fascinating.