Imagine that your doctor’s office is gutted by fire and all the patient files are destroyed. In an instant, it becomes clear just how important electronic medical records are to patient care.

Some legislators and doctors believe that electronic medical records (EMRs) can reduce the cost of providing health care by the billions — savings that can be passed on to patients. They can also streamline paperwork and catch billing errors.

But most importantly for you, the patient, is that an EMR can make health care safer and more efficient. These records contain information that your doctor will need quick access to in order to treat you; information such as your medical and personal history, prescriptions and drug allergies, medical tests and results, blood type, and doctor’s notes.

Aside from expediting routine medical care, an EMR is vital in an emergency, or in a situation where you cannot speak for yourself, for instance, if you’re unconscious. Also, a pharmacist can use an EMR to tell if any drug you’re using could interact with another drug you’re taking.

Despite the benefits, the implementation of EMRs in hospitals and other health facilities across the country is slow. In one survey published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) only four percent of doctors had a fully implemented EMR system, and 13 percent had a basic system. Another report indicates that only about 10 percent of hospitals have an EMR system.

The NEJM survey also revealed that doctors believe patient health care is much better when they use electronic health records. However, these doctors also believed that the main obstacle to using EMRs was financial. It’s a catch-22, because EMRs may save billions of dollars in the future, but require a substantial investment upfront.

Another problem beside slow implementation is that there is no universal standard for EMRs. What they contain varies from state to state. Plus, doctors and insurance companies can decide which records they’ll keep, meaning that the records are not complete, which could put patient care at risk. Also, most systems are local, so if you live in Savannah, but you become ill while visiting an aunt in Phoenix, the hospital or doctor there won’t be able to access your information.

Privacy is another big factor. Medical identity theft is increasing, and in the past, patients’ health information has been compromised by security breeches in hospitals and insurance companies. Despite the Health Information Portability Accountability Act, which sets standards for how health info is shared electronically, privacy remains an issue. Even a plan by President Barack Obama to ensure that EMRs are computerized within five years is facing the privacy hurdle.

How to protect yourself
• Keep your own personal health record (PHR). Some online companies, including Microsoft’s, allow you to store a PHR online. Despite encryption technology, security is still a concern for many in the health industry and government. You can keep your own copy in a fireproof-waterproof storage file at home, or in a safe deposit box. Just remember to update it regularly.
• Get a copy of your EMR every year. These records rely on human data input and mistakes can happen. For instance, a health professional could incorrectly enter drug names or test results. Review yours each year and speak to your doctor about any errors.