Only about one-third of family doctors in Nova Scotia have computerized their patient records, despite a $4-million government initiative launched five years ago.

The minority of doctors who use electronic medical records (EMR) can download X-ray and diagnostic test results from laboratories and hospitals in the province.

Dr. Rick Gibson, a family physician in Cole Harbour, said the system also reminds him when a patient is due for a certain procedure, such as a pap smear.

Gibson computerized his records a decade ago. It took him nearly two years to switch to the government's preferred EMR.

'They're still running a paper system parallel to the electronic system.' —Dr. Rick Gibson

Many others aren't as keen.

"I've talked to a great many people that are sort of within 10 years of retirement and they're just saying, 'I'll just carry on with what I'm doing for now because I don't see the point in switching,' " said Gibson.

Among the doctors who have the EMR system, many are still using old charts, he said.

"They still haven't overcome the hurdle of taking the paper stuff that comes in and scanning it, so they're still running a paper system parallel to the electronic system."

The province encourages family doctors to use electronic records. The doctors' latest contract offers incentives worth $10,000 a year, plus an extra $5,000 if they buy the Nightingale software endorsed by the Department of Health.

Gibson said he believes more family doctors would switch if specialists and pharmacists were online, too.

Options desired

Dr. Jane Brooks, president of Doctors Nova Scotia, said not everyone wants to use the same program.

"You don't want to have high-level support just to run your EMR when it used to be as easy as opening your paper chart and writing on a piece of paper. We feel strongly there should be more than one choice for physicians," said Brooks, a general practitioner in Middleton.

But connecting more than one software system will cost more, said Sandra Cascadden, chief IT officer for the Department of Health.

"It's not quite double, but it is in the double-digit millions," she said.

Cascadden said there's the added cost of buying the second EMR, creating the infrastructure to run it and ensuring that it can share information with the first system.

The province launched the electronic records program in 2005, saying it would improve quality of care and access to treatment. Eighty-eight clinics and 801 users are registered, or about 32 per cent of eligible doctors, according to the Department of Health website.

In countries like Britain where 90 per cent of doctors are online, the federal government mandated one system.