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But for physicians who haven’t mastered the art of managing the digital record while giving the patient enough attention, he said, it can be difficult.
“There’s always a fear that you spend less time in eye-to-eye [contact] with the patient because you’re inputting data,” Thorson said. “Does that change that patient-physician relationship a little bit?”
Dr. Paul Kleeberg, who helps health care providers adopt electronic records systems, said some doctors can feel like “data entry clerks” instead of physicians, particularly when first inputting a patient’s history.
Kleeberg said that when he saw patients, he tried to make the electronic record a shared experience.
He would sit next to his patients and show them what he was putting in the computer, what their results were and what it meant for their health.
When a patient was telling Kleeberg her story, he would type it out on the computer without looking at the keyboard, maintaining eye contact.
“I would do a lot of cleanup later,” he said, “but at least it had the story in there.”
While some medical students adapt to the digital records faster than their older mentors, even some in the younger generation are apprehensive.
Alice Lehman, a second-year University of Minnesota medical student, said young doctors may be able to use the electronic records more efficiently because they’re more tech-savvy, but they’ll still have a lot to learn. While most Minnesota hospitals have some type of electronic records, the different systems often can’t communicate with one another, which creates just one more thing to learn.
The federal government is implementing phase two of its “meaningful use” program this year, which gives hospitals financial incentives for using electronic systems that can talk to other systems.
Federal incentives like that, Westra said, are improving digital communication among health care providers, but there’s still work to do.
“When you’re changing the health care system … nationally,” she said, “that doesn’t turn on a dime.”
Rebecca Harrington is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.