There is great potential for information technology to support improvements in patient safety and the quality of care in general practice, according to studies published// in the latest issue of the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA).
The two studies both looked into how many GPs use a computer and, more importantly, what they use their computer for.
Ninety percent of Australian GPs now use a computer as part of their daily clinical practice, the studies found.
Electronic prescribing and ordering tests are the most common computing activities among GPs, but the studies also revealed for the first time that a majority of GPs use their computer to store some patient data in electronic medical records.
One in five GPs reported storing all their patient data electronically.
At the same time relatively few GPs are accessing online information and support services during a consultation.
Mrs Joan Henderson, Associate Professor Helena Britt, and Associate Professor Graeme Miller of The University of Sydney Family Medicine Research Centre say the results indicate that while the physical presence of computers in practices has increased significantly over the past decade, GPs are still reluctant to fully embrace the technology.
Some GPs say they are hesitant to use computers for reasons including maintenance costs, privacy and security issues, lack of knowledge and training in the software, and the inconvenience of computer "crashes".
Despite this, the co-authors of the second study, Mr Keith McInnes from the Harvard University Department of Healthcare Policy, and Professor Michael Kidd and Professor Deborah Saltman AM from The University of Sydney Department of General Practice, said the uptake of electronic prescribing has improved efficiency and quality of care, and reduced medication errors.
"Improving adoption of other electronic functions, such as accessing online
decision support and maintaining registers of patients, is likely to lead to additional health gains, especially in managing chronic conditions," say the authors.
In a related article in the MJA, Dr Justin Tse of the Royal Melbourne Hospital Clinical School suggests a program of change management could encourage GPs to master information technology.
He proposes beginning with an assessment of what changes need to take place, building consensus of these changes amongst all involved, and implementing the change with suitable training and educational support.
Finally he stresses that acceptance of change is crucial to encouraging uptake of computer technology by GPs and that training programs are the ideal time to teach them the necessary skills.
The Medical Journal of Australia is a publication of the Australian Medical Association.
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