Why So Much Paper? The Healthcare Digitalization Gap


July 25th, 2020

Technology has become a key component in healthcare, so why is there still so much paper. The healthcare digitization gap is costing money, time, and care.

healthcare digitization

Paper is a problem if it still plays a big role in your organization. Whether it’s paper files, patients completing paper forms, or paper prescriptions—paper causes inefficiency and heightens risk. While efforts for digitizing patient records, files, and prescriptions have been in place for some time, the healthcare digitization gap still exists.

But why? And how are paper processes costing money and time while also impacting public health data and patient care?

Digital Adoption in Healthcare Wide but Not Without Challenges

The long road toward being technology-centric in healthcare began decades ago. The first EHR appeared in the 1960s, with the Mayo Clinic as an early adopter. Since then, the EHR has been in a constant state of evolution. Yet these early EHRs did not eliminate paper. 

Then the government began to push EHR adoption with a mandate and support for industry-wide adoption in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Currently, the adoption rate of certified EHRs in large hospitals is 99%. It was slightly lower for medium, small, and rural hospitals. 

Great—so problem solved, right? EHRs should remove paper from most processes, but it’s not magic. Paper is still prevalent (and so is faxing with 75% of all medical communications still occurring in this channel). The reliance on the fax is another story and illustrates interoperability challenges.

So, what are the real issues with healthcare digitization?

The Patient Experience—Fill This Out

When patients enter a healthcare facility, they are almost always met with a clipboard and forms to complete. They must painstakingly write out all their information and health history. This is not something that happens for only new patients—returning ones get the same drill.

The reality is that patient medical history and records are already in digital format. Your organization already has them—this is especially true if a patient sees multiple clinicians within the same health system.

If a patient sees a primary care doctor one month then a specialist the next, why do they have to fill out the same forms again? If your patient has n

In a health system, it’s likely everyone is using the same EHR. So why isn’t this information visible to all? Or in the case of different EHRs, why is data exchange so hard?  

The solution points back to interoperability and accessibility. What good is an EHR if it doesn’t remove paper?

Paper Prescriptions—Adding Another Layer to the Pile

Most providers use eScripts. Data from 2017 found that 77% of prescribers use eScripts—up from 73% in 2016. That’s progress, but paper prescriptions are still present. 

What makes it even more concerning is there use during COVID-19. A patient receives a paper prescription then must submit that to the pharmacy. The patient must then wait or return later to pick up the medication. It’s inefficient and leads to possible exposure. 

If this seems like a bad idea, you’re not wrong.

Paper Records, Files, and Prescriptions Equal Risk

Many risks come with still depending on paper processes, including:

Higher data breach risk and the threat of HIPAA noncompliance: 

If your organization has PHI on paper, it’s easier for it to be stolen or misplaced. This scenario can be a catalyst for a breach or noncompliance. A survey from the Ponemon Institute and Shred-It revealed that 70% of healthcare organization managers saw or picked up documents containing sensitive information from the printer. 

While we typically consider data breaches to be cyber-related, it can happen with physical paper as well. According to the HHS (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), 22% of breaches in 2018 were paper-related

Why expose your organization to more risk? It may not be viable to remove paper completely from the equation. Still, the less there is, the chance of breaches and noncompliance lessens. 

Human error

If patients are completing paper forms, it’s likely errors will occur. Transposing numbers or misspellings will happen. If the handwriting is illegible, the chance of human error increases. If patients have a single source of truth where they can update their contact information, medications, providers, and insurance information, it’s more efficient and accurate.

Patient experience

healthcare digitization patient experience

It’s frustrating for any patient to have to continue to fill out the same forms over and over again. Providers need to think of patients more as consumers because they have a choice. If providers can improve the experience, they earn loyalty. 

No one likes unnecessary paperwork. It becomes a barrier to the patient-provider relationship. It sends the message to patients that you don’t know their medical history or why they are there. 

The new interoperability rule is attempting to put the patient experience front and center. It’s possible that its eventual deployment will give patients the power to manage their information and ensure it’s portable. 

Is Healthcare Digitization a Priority for You?

In any organization, you focus on what’s a priority. Some aspects of digitization are more urgent because they intertwine with regulations. While paper processes aren’t noncompliant, they are a drain on resources. That means they should probably be a priority—plus, they could help you with patient retention.  

What ways can you eliminate paper from your processes? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject!

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