We’ve all been there: We walk up to the desk at our doctor’s office to check in, and in return, we’re handed a clumsy clipboard stacked with what feels like a small novel’s worth of paper forms to complete. And if we’re lucky, the pen awkwardly clipped to the top of the board actually works. It often feels as if you spend the first 30 minutes at any appointment, especially if you’re a new patient, penning your life story–and medical history–in these pages. This may all feel pretty routine, but the big question is: If we’re way beyond the digital revolution and medical practices, too, have embraced cutting-edge technologies within their offices, why are patients still required to contend with reams of paper to establish care?
An Introduction to Electronic Medical Records
The advent of Electronic Medical Records (or EMRs) in the 1990s in hospitals and medical practices began to change the way that patient data was stored and retrieved, slowly foregoing the giant filing cabinets stuffed to capacity with folders containing often outdated and disorganized patient information. The use of EMRs in medical practices swiftly proved beneficial for both office efficiency and the overall quality of patient care, and the federal government even rolled out a mandate in 2014 requiring the adoption of electronic medical records for all practitioners.
However, even with these very immediate and tangible benefits, many physicians still prefer to maintain some sort of paper trail, complete with illegible handwritten comments and progress notes. But as more and moreMillenials and Gen Zers enter the patient population, medical offices are getting pushback on the archaic practice of doling out paper forms - and with good reason.
Paper Is Difficult to Protect
It doesn’t take an episode of Law & Order to realize that paper trails leave literally that–a trail of sensitive and confidential patient information that can be physically removed from an office, easily misplaced and left in compromising situations, lost and/or swapped with other patient files.
Modern technology and cloud platforms, such as Carestream Dental’s Sensei Cloud, offer HIPAA-compliant, password-protected and data-encrypted secure servers that store all patient information. Plus, there is 24-hour monitoring and a whole suite of tools that help keep data and information safe. The old failsafe of making several copies of patient forms and locking them in flimsy cabinets has become a thing of the past, and more patients prefer the privacy and security offered by a digital solution.
Paper Isn’t Easy to Share
The ruin of the fax machine can partly be traced back to the ease and speed with which digital information can be shared. For patients with multiple providers or needing referrals, a digital solution ensures immediacy and security, without having to call offices and ask if someone saw a fax come through. Using paper files slows down the sharing of crucial patient data among providers, practices and insurance companies, ultimately causing more work for office staff and more of a headache for patients.
Paper Forms Take More Time
Patients are already ripe to complain about increasing wait times in doctors’ offices; add filling out a folder’s worth of forms to that, and you have the formula for an unhappy patient and, in today’s world, an unfavorable online review. Giving patients access to a digital platform saves their precious time and speeds up office efficiency in the process. It also gives patients the flexibility to leave fields blank and easily return later, either in-office or through an at-home office portal, to include information they may not have known or needed to look up after the fact.
There is also an access issue when it comes to needing paper forms. Some offices still require patients to fill out information prior to their visit, necessitating the use of both a computer and a printer. In fact, a recent survey from the Lobbie Institute regarding Patient Preferences for Digital Versus Paper Intake Forms found:
“More troubling however, is the ability for patients to complete forms without an online system. [...] only 75% stated that they own a printer. That means that when confronted with practitioners who do not offer digital options, 25% of patients either have to visit a printing service center or show up to appointment waiting rooms without their forms completed.”
The use of paper forms either before or during a visit merely serves to increase the barrier for a patient to even receive care to begin with.
Paper Is Bad for the Environment
It’s no secret–paper comes from trees, and the big business of paper production is responsible for 10% of deforestation worldwide. And with the old system of paper forms, offices were expected to make multiple copies for storage, referrals, backups, patient copies, etc. A single patient file could be multiplied many times over, creating even more paper waste. And nowadays, with B Corporation certifications and greater outcries for transparency around sustainability, patients are more concerned about which businesses–and doctors–they patronize and support. An office foregoing a digital solution in favor of an older, more environmentally harmful one is a deterrent for many patients interested in making more conscientious social and sustainability choices.
Once It’s Printed, It’s What You’ve Got
With rapid advances happening in both medical technology and treatment options, it’s important, not to mention efficient and agile, to have a more customizable option when gathering data on your patients and documenting their care. The same set of questions and fields of information can vary greatly from one patient population to the next, and as a practice grows and changes, so should its intake and record-keeping practices. Having a digital platform allows you to easily add or remove fields and sections, once again avoiding loads of paper waste on outdated printouts and allowing a medical practice to get the truly right set of answers it needs from its patients.
While it’s clear that paper isn’t wholly a thing of the past, especially in hospitals and doctors’ offices, many practitioners are seeing the patient benefit of a paper-free, digital platform. With younger generations establishing care across a wide variety of fields and practices, it is essential that healthcare offices stay current with the times and listen to what their patients are saying and, ultimately, what is going to make the overall experience and quality of care patients receive become even better.