Doctors go digital

Every year, more people are turning to technology to help manage their health, and there’s no shortage of websites, applications, online communities and gadgets to help. However, patients aren’t the only ones embracing new technology — doctors are also getting in on the act.

As part of its recent surveys of patients and physicians, Consumer Reports found technology is making its way into medical practices as well. Here are some tools and developments we could see in the future.

Electronic health records

Implementing them is still a work in progress, but electronic health records will make it easier for physicians to track and share vital information like your test results, x-rays, prescriptions and medical history. Imagine walking into an emergency room and staff can access your information instantly without taking a lengthy history, or your health team having the information they need without the hassle of copying and transferring records.

Sounds good? Some patience is required. Both Canada and the U.S. are still lagging behind other countries when it comes to implementing this new system. In the U.S., for instance, only 37 per cent of physicians in the CR survey say they now keep patient records entirely electronically. Half of patients said their doctors only consulted paper records, while 22 per cent said their doctor used both. The results go to show that even when they are implemented, we can expect some overlap and transition time.

Personal health records

Ever wonder what’s in your medical chart? There are already a few applications on the market to help you track your own information and share it with your health care team, including your physicians and any specialists you’re seeing. For example, Google Health lets you store, manage and share your health information for free — plus you can set health goals and track your progress. Microsoft’s Health Vault goes a few steps further, letting you upload digital versions of documents (like paper records) and download any information from health-related applications that you’re using (like apps to track blood glucose levels.)

Naturally, there are some caveats. Most labs, doctor’s offices, pharmacies and other health care practitioners aren’t hooked in to this technology, so it can be difficult to obtain the information you need, let alone share it. Also, many people have concerns about online security, and health information is something people want to keep private. Right now, experts say these tools are great for managing your health information… if you have the tech know-how and you’re not too worried about security.



No more worrying about your doctor’s illegible handwriting or losing that piece of paper! E-prescribing systems send your prescription information directly from your doctor’s computer to your pharmacy’s. However, it’s designed to do more too: the system can spot any dangerous drug interactions — a common cause of hospital trips — and any allergies you might have. It can also tie in to your insurance plan to help your doctor find the most affordable treatment options (especially for people in the U.S.).

How soon will we see it? In many provinces, e-prescribing systems are tied in with electronic health records. For example, in Ontario e-prescribing will be rolled out along with electronic health care records by 2015. In the U.S., it depends on what system the clinic is using.

E-mail and e-visits

We all know what a hassle it can be to get a doctor’s appointment — not to mention getting there and waiting to be seen. What if you could handle some issues with the ease and convenience of email?

E-mail and e-visits aren’t common yet — and again, there are concerns with privacy here — but doctors are exploring this technology as a way to make things easier on for everyone. For instance, a patient could email to renew a prescription, request a referral to a specialist or “check in” with their treatment for a chronic condition. Of course, many things still require a visit — such as acute issues like an infection or new symptoms — and the system works best when doctors have a long-standing history and familiarity with a patient.

Security aside, money also presents a big obstacle. Doctors and governments or insurance companies have to figure out financial compensation for these services.

Virtual visits can involve more than just written communications. While not covered by the CR survey, web cameras can be used for online visits to people in rural areas. However, don’t expect this option to show up in the average doctor’s office.

Web portals

Still calling the office to make an appointment or check on your test results? You may soon feel old-fashioned. More clinics are creating their own websites to handle things like booking an appointment, paying a bill (in the U.S.), using health management tools and setting up self-care reminders. Some portals also let you access your medical records and test results (securely, of course).

If you’re seeing a new doctor or going in for a procedure (like a colonoscopy), you can even download the paperwork you need online like questionnaires, consent forms and medical history. Still, it’s up to individual practices how they choose to work with patients, and many places still prefer more traditional ways of working with patients.


Health-assessment software

Speaking of questionnaires and assessment, did you know there are online tools you can fill out and take to your doctor to help speed things along? For instance, we told you about some tools for compiling a family medical history to help you and your doctor identify risks for chronic disease. (See A family tree for better health for details.)

However, the scope is much broader — online health assessment software solutions are available both for medical practices and patients to help people check up on their overall health (and get suggestions for improvement), assess risk for disease and monitor symptoms. These assessments aren’t meant to replace a visit to the doctor: instead, they’re tools to help facilitate communication and make sure doctors have the information they need to make sound decisions about treatment.

Mobile devices

Don’t be surprised to see your doctor consult his or her smart phone, notebook computer or iPad. It’s not for personal reasons — they’re likely checking out the latest news, consulting online resources, accessing electronic health records or looking up test results. In addition, there are thousands of applications available for doctors like recall or warning notices from health authorities, health care reference tools and even online versions of medical journals and research publications. Patients can download many of these tools too.

If this all sounds appealing, be forewarned: there’s a big difference between what’s out there and what’s actually being used. If you want to keep tabs on the latest tech, visit your province’s Ministry of Health website to see what technology plans are in the works and how the timeframe looks. Whether you’re in Canada or somewhere else, find out what e-tools and e-services are available through your doctor or medical clinic.

It’s going to take some time for new technology to become commonplace, but experts still warn that the latest tools don’t necessarily make for better doctors. Good communication, support when you need it (like being able to reach someone after hours) and a strong doctor-patient relationship are all important, whether the office is high tech or not.

For more information, read the survey results from Consumer Reports .

Additional sources: provincial health care websites, CBC News

Photo © uchar

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