In the medical industry, electronic records have resulted in many positive results when it comes to receiving, storing, sharing/coordinating and updating patient records. Through the digitization of data, healthcare facilities can communicate faster, more efficiently and have quick access to patient information which can be simultaneously shared with others involved in a patient's care.

These days there is large movement for healthcare providers to go digital.  In the United States, a big push for facilities to go digital was made back in 2008 when the federal government began giving providers financial incentive. 1 Insurance companies have also been advocating for digital storing of data. Since 2008 many providers have gone digital.

While using technology to manage patient records provides many advantages to establish a uniform means of collecting and storing patient data for both the medical provider and the patient, there are some disadvantages too. Some can be significant for both the patient and the facility.  However, it is important to understand the pros and cons when using these systems so facilities can protect the data and consumers understand how and why their information is being used. These are some of the disadvantages:

Conversion to Digital is Expensive

Installing any type of information is expensive to initiate, and it's important for a proper analysis, in any industry, to be conducted before making the investment to convert to digital. For the medical industry, there are also additional considerations to factor in, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). Medical facilities all have to comply with this law that relates to patient privacy and security. This includes proper technology equipment, software applications, and also user training.

User Training

While a necessary process, integrating digital records can become a disadvantage because it takes away (often overworked and.or overburdened) staff from the valuable time needed to give patient care. While keeping digital records can improve efficiency and accuracy, the process to getting there can be a challenge. Not to mention if the right system isn't implemented, this can lead to long-term difficulties. Clearly, if staff isn't able to give their all to patients due to having to be preoccupied with the technological aspect of their jobs, this puts them at a disadvantage too.

Working at a computer station at Washington Hospital Center's emergency room
Credit: Medill DC on Flickr/CC by 2.0 with Attribution

Healthcare workers today have to be trained to use and input data into information systems as things continue to go digital.

Privacy/Data Breach

A data breach that results in exposure of sensitive information is disastrous for both patients and medical facilities. Data breaches can occur due to malware, hacking attempts, human error, a technology glitch or other technique used to exploit. No matter the cause, the end result is the same and the consequences can be costly for both patient and the caregiver facility.

The 2015 Anthem hack is just one example of how digital healthcare records can have wide implications. 1 At this time, it is not yet known what the long-term or depth of the consequences will be from this cyber attack. There's a lot of PII floating around out there and no one knows (or is saying) what the full damages are at this point in time.

For the consumer, medical information and PII (personally identifiable information) have been stored for ages, but the current trend is to move to "health portals" where medical facilities and/or insurance providers want the consumer to also use an online-based system for communication and/or sharing of information. This can be a drawback if the consumer doesn't have a secure Internet connection and/or computer.

Nurse using instant message application to speak with patients
Credit: Army Medicine on Flickr/CC by 2.0 with Attribution

From photo description: "Instant messaging allows patients to ask doctors questions". This can be a great benefit to patients to get more immediate access to healthcare and to communciate with their providers.

Malware and Hacking

Speaking of data breaches, any type of information system is prone to malware or hacking. Information security is often an aspect of a business that is considered secondary to money-making processes such as research/development and marketing, however in the medical industry, it is vital for agencies and offices to invest in protecting the very sensitive data, which can be costly.

However, considering that no system is 100 percent immune from infection, electronic records, if not accessible, or worse, exposed to outside prying eyes, can be disastrous.  Consider cases such as the Georgia hospital that was infected by a worm in 2011. This malware essentially disrupted operations, causing staff to revert back to dashing papers between stations and also preventing new patients from being admitted. 5 It's critical to have a contingency plan in place in the event of an interruption. However, planning for any sort of disaster (interruption) is costly and often put on the back burner.

Downed Systems

Any sort of interruption can result in delayed care. Electricity outages, computer glitches, unavailability of network resources or other interruption can lead to delayed patient care. Usually there are several different systems in the information sharing chain and, if one goes down, it can disrupt the rest of the chain. If all go down, this can halt operations. As a result, care and/or processing can be delayed, putting everyone involved at a disadvantage. While paper files are rapidly becoming antiquated, it does have its advantages -- all one has to do is open a filing cabinet to look up important information.

Nurse using portable information station
Credit: Wonderlane on Flickr/CC by 2.0 with Attribution

Today computer systems are heavily relied on, including the healthcare industry. This is an image of a portable information station used by medical staff.

Health Apps

This form of digital health records is not related to medical providers or facilities, but to consumers and I thought it was worth mentioning. Did you know that health apps you might use can sell your data to insurance companies and that it is totally legal in the United States (and likely other countries too, according to the author of an Aug. 28, 2014 article titled, "Health Apps can sell your data to insurance companies, and there’s nothing you can do about it." ) 6

Mobile continues to grow at an amazingly rapid rate and people often don't think twice about the apps they use.  After all, it's a great way to collect and view information in real time. Not to mention totally convenient. Will health app companies sell the data they collect even if they say they won't? Maybe, maybe not. As the author, Iltifat Husain, MD, points out as an example, Facebook has changed its privacy policies many times. Not to mention apps might sell out to other companies. Consider how many startups tech giants, such as Facebook, Yahoo! and Google, have acquired - anything can happen.

Technology is both a blessing and a curse in the medical industry. However owners, staff and patients should all be aware of the potential pitfalls. Those involved with operations should have a contingency plan in place for the highly possible scenarios and patients should educate themselves on what to do in the event their medical care is disrupted or information is breached.

Technology is clearly here to stay. The important thing is to use it responsibly. As to the rest of us who aren't the decision-makers in things we have no control over, it's important we take the time to learn how our information is being used. (And remember, you don't always have to give over your social security number no matter how many doctors ask you for it - if you leave the space blank on the form, most often you will not be asked for the identifier).

USAMRUK Malaria Diagnostics and Control Center of Excellence microscopy training - Nigeria, Africa
Credit: US Army Africa on Flickr/CC by 2.0 with Attribution