From Papyrus to the Electronic Tablet: A Brief History of the Clinical Medical Record with Lessons for the Digital Age

  • Richard F. Gillum
    Requests for reprints should be addressed to Richard F. Gillum, MD, c/o Dr. T.O. Obisesan, Division of Geriatrics, Howard University Hospital, 2041 Georgia Ave., Washington, DC 20060.
    Departments of Medicine and Community and Family Medicine, Howard University, Washington, DC
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      A major transition is underway in documentation of patient-related data in clinical settings with rapidly accelerating adoption of the electronic health record and electronic medical record. This article examines the history of the development of medical records in the West in order to suggest lessons applicable to the current transition. The first documented major transition in the evolution of the clinical medical record occurred in antiquity, with the development of written case history reports for didactic purposes. Benefiting from Classical and Hellenistic models earlier than physicians in the West, medieval Islamic physicians continued the development of case histories for didactic use. A forerunner of modern medical records first appeared in Paris and Berlin by the early 19th century. Development of the clinical record in America was pioneered in the 19th century in major teaching hospitals. However, a clinical medical record useful for direct patient care in hospital and ambulatory settings was not developed until the 20th century. Several lessons are drawn from the 4000-year history of the medical record that may help physicians improve patient care in the digital age.


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