Electronic records can streamline health care

Replacing manual data with electronic health records would significantly improve the quality of care and enable African HIV treatment programmes to be scaled up more efficiently, say the authors of a new article on the subject.



"Talkin' About a Revolution", published in the latest edition of the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, looked at the Academic Model for Providing Access to Healthcare (AMPATH), a programme that uses electronic health records in care and treatment services for around 100,000 HIV-positive patients at sites across western Kenya.



"Scaling up treatment programmes requires timely data on the type, quantity and quality of care being provided," the authors said. "Health care is an information business; managing patient care requires managing patients' data at many levels ... health care systems the size of AMPATH (or larger) cannot effectively be managed without ... [electronic] data."



More efficient care



The health data system can help programme managers avoid medical errors and stock-outs of key medicines, while enabling clinicians to monitor and care for their patients more effectively.



"Electronic records help us store data efficiently, retrieve it when we need it, and monitor and evaluate the progress of our programmes much more easily than if we were using manual systems," said Erica Kigothe, AMPATH's programme manager in charge of data management.



"When a patient comes to a clinic for a visit, instead of poring over large files, the clinician has one summary sheet that contains all the vital patient information and should he or she need more information, they can always go back to the patient's computerized file," she told IRIN/PlusNews.



A previous study comparing an AMPATH clinic before and after the adoption of electronic health records found that patient visits were 22 percent shorter, provider time per patient was reduced by 58 percent, and patients spent 38 percent less time waiting.



Kigothe noted that assessing disease trends was also easier with electronic records, as was collating data for the purposes of research and new directions in programme development.



Electronic health systems have been successfully used in the care and treatment of HIV in Lesotho, Malawi, Rwanda, South Africa and Uganda, but few African countries have adopted the systems on a large scale.



"Programme implementers in low-income countries sometimes see clinicians' recording of patient data and the management of those data as secondary to providing good care, or even a distraction," the article's authors commented.



Not all smooth sailing



The programme has not been without its difficulties. "In one of our sites in Busia [town on the Kenya-Uganda border] they have very frequent power outages, so they have had to find ways to work around it, inputting data when power is on, even if that is at night," Kigothe said.



Finding people with computer skills is not always easy in the developing world, particularly in rural areas, and "like any equipment, computers break down from time to time and require repair or replacement, which can cause some problems" and incur additional expenses, she said. "In addition, the data collectors are human, and therefore prone to the occasional error."



Electronic systems are not cheap; they require considerable investment in computers, training data collectors and hiring information technology experts. However, according to the study, AMPATH's total cost of care is under US$100 per patient per year, making the system financially feasible even in resource-poor settings.



"You're going to have to spend quite a lot of money to set up the system," Kigothe said. "But looking at the big picture, it saves so much in the long run - for example, each of our data collectors manages 2,000 patients' information, something that would be impossible using manual data collection."



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