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PHOENIX -- For decades, medical records have been stored in vast filing cabinets. In those files are handwritten notes, patient histories and prescriptions. But now, medical records are taking the digital leap, and that's providing benefits to patients and providers.

And as almost everything today becomes digital and connected to the Internet, a local task force is urging the shift from paper to digital when it comes to patient's health care records.

"The real benefit is increased efficiency and quality on the part of providers," Tom Reavis, director of marketing and communication for Arizona Health eConnections, said. "We've seen a tremendous change in recent years. In 2008, we had about 45 percent of providers in the state using electronic health records or electronic medical records. Today, it's about 80 percent."

The task force -- made up of more than 50 Arizona organizations that include hospitals, health care systems, health plans, government and nonprofit organizations -- is charged with educating and encouraging the public and health care providers to use digital medical records.

Using digital records rather than paper provides many benefits to patients, Reavis said, including what he called "e-prescriptions."

"Rather than writing something on a piece of paper (and) handing it to a patient, having to deal with faxes and phone calls back and forth, a touch of a button can send a e-prescription, and then a patient can have a prescription waiting at the pharmacy," he said.

In the past, fax machines and phone calls were the methods health care providers used to communicate patient histories, order prescriptions and remind patients of appointments and checkups. Reavis said electronic records help reduce the man-hours required of staff to fulfill these duties.

"Someone has to go check (fax machines). You have to make sure the toner is in, the paper's in," he said. "It does eat up staff time as phone calls and faxes go back and forth, and electronic health records remove all that."

Besides increasing efficiency, Reavis said electronic records also provide patients with better security and privacy.

Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, hospitals and doctors face steep fines and repercussions for a breach of privacy in a patient's medical records, and Reavis said that means providers take security concerns very seriously when it comes to electronic records.

"The one thing you don't want to say is to say that every system is perfect and that there's no problems," he said. "But what you do have in place is really an entire industry that is dedicated to patient privacy through electronic health records."

With doctors facing fines of up to $50,000 per privacy breach -- and for hospitals, even bigger fines -- Reavis said most providers make sure their systems are certified and up-to-date with current standards.

"Most of the electronic health records that have been adopted have been through the incentive programs of Medicare and Medicaid, and in order for providers to adopt a system, that system has to be certified," he said. "Part of that certification is really meeting all the standards for privacy and security.

"The one thing you can say is, it is a much, much safer system and a much more secure system than paper records ever were."

Reavis said the future of health care is having patients involved in their own care, and digital records help close the gap between patients and providers.

He said one of the primary ways for patients to become more involved is to use "patient portals," which many providers offer.

Patient portals are online, log-in required places where a patient can view their medical records, Reavis said.

"This allows patients to get information about appointments. They can schedule appointments online. They can receive information on their lab results and other types of information," he said. "So they can really stay on top of their health care and have more ready access to their health care information."

Reavis said he recommends that patients talk to their doctors about using electronic records, and if available, take advantage of the benefits they can offer.

"You certainly can ask about patient portals and whether a provider has that available, or will have that available," he said. "But it's really just good sense to be informed about the technology that their providers are using and to understand it better."

Mark Remillard,

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