by Eric Rider
An integral part of effective eDiscovery—and good business—is information management, and keeping paper versions of documents and records for an extended period of time is no longer considered best practice.
For the healthcare industry in particular, both increased privacy standards and newer government regulations have made the transition from paper documents to electronic ones of paramount importance.
Many healthcare professionals can think back on the days, not so long ago, that their patients’ charts were stored in massive rooms of files. When they wanted a chart, it had to be manually retrieved, updated and replaced. Couldn’t find the chart? As it was a paper document, there wasn’t really much that could be done; the data was simply lost. That represents a significant breach in data security and a significant risk to the organization.
In 2009, President Obama introduced the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Act (HITECH), designed to promote and expand the use of health information technology. Particular to this discussion, a major goal was to grow the use of the Electronic Health Record (EHR) by setting meaningful use interoperability standards, such as the use of an EHR for the electronic exchange of health information between healthcare institutions. In fact, beginning in 2015, healthcare organizations that are not utilizing EHRs are subject to penalties under Medicaid reimbursement. This alone is a great reason for healthcare providers to start converting their older, “backfile” documents into electronic data—but there are several more reasons.
Especially when dealing with protected information, having a regimented information management policy in place can protect an institution from potential legal blowback should anything be accidentally lost or deleted. This becomes significantly more difficult when using paper files. What if a fire should occur? Or a tornado? Any unforeseen disaster can leave paper files as dust…and they cannot be retrieved, unless there is a copy elsewhere, though they can sometimes be recreated. Of course, creating copies of paper documents, or recreating them, would be time-consuming and expensive, so it also would not be a great option.
Tying into that, and there’s no way around it, keeping paper records is more expensive than keeping electronic records. To put it in perspective, if you had a 16GB flash drive you could store upwards of 200,000 “typically” sized (~75KB) document pages. These flash drives can be purchased for as little as $3.
Now think about the cost of managing paper. In order to store information, particularly the sensitive information of the healthcare industry, you need large amounts of storage space, employees to staff the space and maintain the records, filing cabinets or other organizational tools and some sort of security around the records to meet compliance regulations. A single filing cabinet can cost upwards of $500. Add in all the other costs, and it’s quite the expensive endeavor. In fact, a PriceWaterhouseCoopers study suggests that the average organization spends $20 in labor to file a single paper document, approximately $120 in retrieving and searching for misplaced or lost documents and about $220 to recreate a single lost document.
Unfortunately, this isn’t even the end of the cost of maintaining paper documents. An independent government study by California’s Alameda County showed that the cost of paper itself was a mere 10-11% of the actual lifecycle costs of the paper. Additional costs include copying, delivery, handling, storage and distribution. Fortunately, trading in paper documents for electronic versions is a relatively simple and cheap process.
Document imaging, or converting paper-based records into electronic files, begins with scanning the records, much as one might scan a tax return they want to store on their computer’s hard drive. After they’ve been converted into electronic documents, these are then indexed by specific keywords, stored electronically according to an organization’s information management policy and available for retrieval.
That means they can be worked with like all other electronically stored information (ESI) as part of the eDiscovery process. And eDiscovery is the core of what we do. When an organization anticipates or is undergoing litigation, they turn to us to help them collect their data, cull it to find relevant information, host and manage the review process and produce documents as directed by the court. Converted files can be collected, filtered, reviewed and processed just like files that are natively digital.
In a nutshell, paper files are expensive, time-consuming and risky. Electronic files are secure, cheaper than paper and easier to manage. Further, when compared with the costs associated with creating and maintaining paper files—the cost of paper, ink, toner, auxiliary supplies, storage, etc.—making the switch from paper records to digital records is relatively inexpensive. And, should a company ever face legal proceedings, already having digital files will be of great benefit in the eDiscovery process. It seems evident that the verdict is in, and paper files are on their way out. Digital records are the new black, and it looks good on you.