Electronic health records (EHRs) appear to reduce the number of malpractice payouts, researchers report. Their study showed that only 6.1% of physicians who used EHRs had a malpractice settlement history compared with 10.8% of physicians who relied on paper.

The investigators surveyed practicing physicians in 2005 and examined settlement data from the Massachusetts state medical board. Among 1,140 respondents, 379 (33.2%) used EHRs and 105 (9.2%) had a history of one or more malpractice payouts in the preceding 10 years.

Consistency of EHR use also had an inverse relationship with malpractice settlements: 5.7% of those physicians who used their systems most had payouts compared with 12.1% of the doctors who used their systems least. However, in analyses that controlled for sex, race, year of medical school graduation, specialty, and practice size, the relationship was no longer statistically significant.

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“Although the results are inconclusive, physicians with EHRs appear less likely to have paid malpractice claims,” the authors concluded in Archives of Internal Medicine (2008; 168:2362-2367).

They offered several possible reasons for the association. EHRs allow:

  • Easy access to patient histories, which may reduce diagnostic errors;
  • Improved follow-up for abnormal test results;
  • Better adherence to clinical guidelines; and
  • Clear and legible documentation, which can help the defense team if a claim is filed.

“There is broad consensus that EHRs are an essential foundation for delivery of high quality care,” said senior author Steven R. Simon, MD, MPH, assistant professor of ambulatory care and prevention at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

If confirmed in further studies, the authors predicted, their findings could result in lower premiums for doctors who use EHRs and in government subsidies to help finance EHR adoption.