Electronic Records May Cut Malpractice Suits

Study reports doctors with electronic records face lower odds of malpractice claim

The use of electronic health records (EHRs) may help reduce the number of malpractice suits for physicians, according to a recent study by Harvard professors.

6.1 percent of physicians who used computers to keep records have paid a malpractice claim in the last 10 years, compared with 10.8 percent of physicians who used a solely paper-based system.

David W. Bates, one of the authors of the study and a professor at Harvard Medical School and the School of Public Health, said that part of the reason for this correlation could be that the care being delivered is actually of higher quality.

“Having information in an organized, legible way could make it easier to deliver safer care,” Bates said.

The study evolved out of a 2005 statewide survey of Massachusetts physicians performed by the authors, who found that 33.2 percent of physicians were using EHRs.

“There was a lot of suspicion that electronic health records improved quality of care,” said Medical School professor Steven Simon, another author of the study, but there was a lack of literature regarding the connection between EHRs and malpractice suits. Because of the length of time required for malpractice suits to play out, Simon said, it’s “a hard question to study.”

The authors found the correlation by linking their previous findings to public records on which physicians had paid malpractice claims in the last 10 years.

These findings are part of a larger trend toward a more widespread use of EHRs.

“It’s one more reason to add to the growing list of reasons why physicians should adopt electronic health records,” Simon said. “If further studies can confirm our findings, all organizations that pay the price of malpractice suits
would encourage electronic health records.”

During his campaign, President-elect Barack Obama called for up to $50 billion to be invested in health information technology over the next five years, a category of spending that would include EHRs.

“It’s hard to know if and when that will happen, but I think all of us in the health information technology community are hopeful,” Simon said.

School of Public Health and Medical School professor Ashish Jha also said he was hopeful that government policies will aid the shift to EHRs.

“It’s a slow process, but I do think there’s a role for the federal government to play,” he said. “The fact that in 2008 most doctors’ offices and hospitals are still paper-based is really a shame and is unacceptable.”