Paper v. Electronic Records: The good, the bad and everything in between

Probably one of the biggest decisions therapists have to make about their practice these days is whether or not to go with electronic records (i.e. EHR). As with anything, there are benefits and drawbacks to this choice. Since I've had a lot of experience with launching electronic health record systems and evaluating workflows I thought I'd lay out all the pros and cons right here so you can make an informed decision about what's right for your practice. Let's dive in...

Paper Records

Pros:

The biggest pro to using paper is that you can start with it practically for free. Create or purchase a paperwork packet, buy some paper and a few file folders and you're set to go. Very little ongoing cost... although you do need to ensure you have a cabinet to lock all files. 

Another pro to using paper is that you can customize and change your forms at will, without worrying about requirements or limitations of an EHR. You can include a logo/branding to make them look nice and delete or add as many sections as you like. 

The third pro with paper is that some people really do have more of a connection with writing something. Also, if you do a lot of worksheets, artwork, etc. with clients in session it is very easy to throw those papers in a file, rather than scanning and uploading everything you want in the client record

Lastly, most people are familiar with paper. It is easy to set up and you don't have to learn anything new to get started. 

Cons: 

The biggest con with paper records is simply that you have to physically store them for so long! Most of us keep records for seven years (or longer, if you see children/teens) and it's really difficult to tell whether or not you plan to move at all in the next seven years. This can also make things difficult to track after multiple moves.

Related to storage is the fact that things can get lost. With paper records, you're really putting all your eggs in one basket and it's very easy to lose things once you start keeping multiple files. 

Another harsh reality is that files can be destroyed or stolen. I know people whose offices have flooded from a leaky sink not caught over the weekend, people whose offices completely burned down in a fire and people whose computer and other equipment was stolen. These things really do happen and it's unfortunate to lose so much information so easily. 

Lastly, many people simply write much more slowly than they type. Using paper records can be more time-consuming than using a computer to complete paperwork. This applies to both your clients as well as yourself and any employees/associates. In some ways, sharing documents can be easier with paper but it can also be more difficult if you need to fax or scan things that would've otherwise already been uploaded electronically. 

The In Between

So... what if you want to type your notes on a computer, but not use a cloud-based system? Perhaps this seems like the easiest solution. The main benefits here are that you likely already have a computer for work, you won't have to lug around a bunch of files or have an ugly cabinet in your office, and you also won't have to pay for a monthly subscription to keep records. 

However, most of the cons with paper still apply here. Your computer is probably the most likely item to ever be stolen and with this method you're likely putting all your eggs in that one basket. So, if anything happens to your computer (and even us Mac users have heard horror stories of people losing everything based on a glitch or a misplaced cup of coffee), well, you're screwed.

Electronic Records

Before we go over any pros and cons with electronic records, it's important to note that while there are some great EHR's out there, no system is perfect and no system will have everything set up exactly the way you want. With that in mind, let's look at what the general pros and cons include...

Pros:

Probably the biggest pro of using an EHR for your private practice is that all your records are easily housed in one place. You simply log in and voila, everything you need! If you have internet access, then you can access your full client records from any location. Many EHR systems even have apps so you can write a quick note from your phone.

Another huge pro is that having your records in an EHR will likely provide the safest records storage available. While we're all concerned about hackers, and that is certainly something to keep in mind, a good EHR will provide excellent security. This security will be far beyond what you could create for yourself, either using paper or keeping notes housed on your computer.

And because you have easy access to safe storage, many EHR's will safely store credit card numbers for your clients. Roy Huggins has a great article (click here to read) discussing the reasons you probably don't want to collect your client's credit card numbers yourself. Having them write their credit card information on a form you keep is very unsecure. But if you use an EHR that has this set up through a merchant account, they are ensuring the security is up to date and you can ensure you'll be paid. 

If you contract with insurance companies, an EHR can save you tons of time because they typically include billing. While that doesn't mean they're going to call to check eligibility or follow up on rejected claims, they will often submit your claims electronically as soon as you enter the necessary data. Again, everything you need in one place. And if you provide clients with a super bill, most EHR's will print out a nice one for your clients based on the sessions you've entered.

Lastly, another benefit to using an EHR is that many offer client portals. This means your clients can log in to complete and upload paperwork before appointments, and even interact with you securely. This can save worry about email communication or clients forgetting to bring in needed paperwork.

Cons:

The most obvious con with using an EHR is the cost. While most are actually providing an exceptional service for the price, it can still be a stretch if you're just starting out and only have a few clients. This is where it's really important to think through all your expenses and also, your long-term goals. Using an EHR is probably one of the best investments you can make for a therapy practice... but if the money's not there, then it's just not there.

Another con is that despite your best efforts and our tech society, there is still a lot of paper going around. This means you are likely to end up scanning documents every once in a while. For some, this may be just a couple pages a year but for others (and depending on your particular EHR set up) it could mean LOTS of scanning. Consider your clientele- do you tend to work with people who often have reports or require lots of communication with other providers? If so, you'll want to consider a more robust system that allows clients to upload documents. Also, if you have an assistant, this may not be such a big deal.

Lastly, another con with EHR's is that some offer limited ability to customize your documentation. You know this is a big one for me because I believe that you should personalize your paperwork to your client's needs as much as possible. Some EHR's do allow you to create your own templates, some don't, and some charge extra for this feature. This is where shopping around and trying things out ahead of time is crucial. The last thing you want is to get everything set up and then realize the notes or treatment plans are a total pain to work with!

Some Cons to All Methods

One mistake I've seen over and over applies to all records, paper or electronic. That's putting something in the wrong client file. I've seen people physically put the wrong note, release form, etc. in a paper file and I've also seen people accidentally type a note in the wrong client's file within an EHR. Some people have never made this mistake, some people have done it multiple times. Obviously, the key here is to make sure you're taking time to be mindful of what you're doing when writing notes. 

An EHR can save you lots of time and headache, but it can't think for you. So regardless of which method you use, make sure that documentation isn't an afterthought. Instead, let's make it a meaningful part of your practice. 

If you're looking for tips on how to personalize your mental health paperwork, check out my free Private Practice Paperwork Crash Course, where I walk you through different ways of writing notes and treatment plans, as well as what to focus on during intake.