Could EHRs help avoid malpractice suits?

Along with electronic health records' promise to help doctors make better decisions, eliminate unnecessary tests and prescription errors, there's another possibility that could make wary physicians more eager to get on board. According to a research letter published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, EHRs also could reduce malpractice claims.

A group of Harvard-affiliated researchers studied the EHR implementation and malpractice suits of 275 physicians covered by a Massachusetts insurer in 2005 and 2007. In all, it found 51 malpractice claims, 49 of which occurred before EHR implementation and just two that came after. Thirteen of the pre-EHR suits (27 percent) resulted in payouts, while neither of the post-EHR suits did.

But the authors pointed to a lower number of claims overall. Their findings suggest that a reduction in errors is likely responsible for at least a component of this association, since the absolute rate of claims was lower post-EHR adoption, reports MedPage Today.

They explained that electronic records might help solve problems such as poor communication among providers, delays in getting patient information, unsafe prescribing practices, and poor adherence to clinical guidelines. In addition, the documentation provided in EHRs can improve the chances of a successful defense.

The authors noted that the small sample--just 33 physicians overall were named in a lawsuit--precluded making sweeping generalizations of the results. They also noted that these physicians were early adopters of EHRs and they might also practice differently than the general physician population. And then there's the possibility that they implemented other changes in practice in addition to EHRs that might have led to the reduction in malpractice claims.

Yet they concluded, "The reduction in claims seen in this study among physicians who adopted EHRs lends support to the push for widespread implementation of health information technology."

Many doctors are wary of all the rosy claims about EHRs. A recent survey found an increase in the percentage of doctors who believe that care will deteriorate with EHRs, for example. And a separate poll by vendor athenahealth not only found 75 percent of physicians find Meaningful Use cumbersome, but also that the percentage of favorable opinions of EHRs dropped from 39 percent in 2011 to 32 percent this year.

Not sold on the idea that EHRs will protect patient safety, the American Health Lawyers Association recently announced an initiative to explore all the ways that EHRs can increase malpractice risk, reports EHR Intelligence.

To learn more:
- read the research letter
- here's the MedPage Today article
- check out the EHR Intelligence story

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