Medical doctors get lumbered with the traditional "bad handwriting joke" for a reason—I haven't yet met one that writes legibly. But these scribbles are no joke: Doctors' bad handwriting may be the source of up to 7,000 deaths in the US each year. That's why President Obama's economic recovery package is expected to contain around $20 billion for computerized medical notes.
By connecting hospitals and doctors over the net, the speed and ease of sharing information will increase. Prescription fraud and abuse may decline as well, along with the potential for misunderstanding another medical expert's notes.
A recent piece of research from hospitals in Texas highlights exactly these benefits. The study found that patients who were treated in "paperless" hospitals—specifically those that ranked highest in the use of health IT to manage patient details—were 15% less likely to die than patients in hospitals ranked at the lowest end. And when it comes to life-or-death situations, a 15% margin is enormous.
The IT-heavy hospitals were 9% less likely to lose a heart-attack patient and 55% less likely to lose a bypass patient than those hospitals who have only light use of health IT.
And the benefits of using digital medical records extend beyond patient deaths into having fewer patients with medical complications, and reduced operating costs. According to Dr. Neil Poe of Johns Hopkins, "If these results were to hold for all hospitals in the United States, computerizing notes and records might have the potential to save 100,000 lives annually."
I have just one hope about Obama's plans for modernizing the medical notes system: It must include typing training for medical doctors, nurses and technicians. Not only is that going to be a vital safety issue, but it's frankly awful to watch my already-computerized family doctor painfully hunt-and-peck type at his PC keyboard when it'd take him a tenth of the time to write by hand.