Computers and the electronic data processing that they allow are reshaping our world in ways that can scarcely be overstated. Whether we shop for groceries or read a newspaper, bank our earnings or watch television, drive a car or receive medical care, computers are involved at some level or other. However, nowhere is this spread of electronic data processing more noticeable than in the area of health care.
The reason computerized data processing has penetrated health care delivery to such a degree is that the delivery of health care has increasingly become a data-intensive enterprise, involving the generation, storage, retrieval and manipulation of vast amounts of data. Computers facilitate the integration and manipulation of these data, and permit the development of levels of decision-making that would have been impossible with old- style material records. As well, they do this more quickly, more surely and more cheaply, using less power and space than the latter.
In the beginning, the application of computer based information technology in health care delivery was confined to areas such as electronic imaging, telemetry, diagnostics and so on. In essence, these developments were purely technical extensions of the previously existing health information technology. They differed from the latter only in the increased speed and sophistication of the devices themselves, and in the variety and quality of the associated service delivery that was thus made possible.
However, a change of quantum-like proportions occurred with the development of electronic patient records. These are patient records that are electronically stored in a particular computer in a hospital or clinic, or in a distributed fashion in several computers within one institution or in computers housed in institutions that are geographically separated; or,