How is the U.S. implementing electronic medical records?

By: Molly Edmonds

Is there a better way to store our nation's health information?
Is there a better way to store our nation's health information?
Tripod/Lifesize/Getty Images

Schoolchildren in the United States are often threatened with an ominous-sounding "permanent record." Don't get in trouble, teachers warn, or that's where the offense will be recorded. Better do well on these tests, they'll say, because the results go in a file that will stick with you for life. It was unclear who stored the document or had access to it -- Santa Claus, perhaps? -- but while employers may ask about a criminal background or request an academic transcript, they never seem to request the permanent record.

When it comes to your health, though, it would be a big help. Known as an electronic medical record, this file would follow you from the time you were born until your dying day. Any doctor that you visited in your lifetime would immediately know what allergies you had and all the medications you'd ever taken without you having to fill out any paperwork. He or she would have access to your entire health history, and that big-picture view would help identify any changes that could cause serious problems, such as steady weight gain or continually increasing cholesterol.


The system that houses your file would also help the doctor manage your care by giving reminders of preventive screenings you should receive based on your age, gender and family history, and the system would also have the capability of issuing a warning before a mistake was made -- alerting the doctor if one of your medications reacts badly with another one. Any diagnostic lab tests that you had would be uploaded directly to the file for quick access, and if you saw a specialist, there'd be less of a chance you'd have to undergo duplicate testing. If you're battling a chronic condition like diabetes or heart disease, your doctors would be able to better coordinate your care.

Not only would this electronic medical record save you time and lead to better care, it may eventually save you and all U.S. citizens money. Analysts predict that widespread use of electronic medical records could shave tens of billions of dollars in costs from the U.S. health care system [source: Hillestad et al.]. Despite these benefits, the U.S. lags behind other developed countries in electronic medical record keeping. Find out why and learn how the system will be changing, on the next page.