Are Fax Machines Necessary for Medical Records?

For most people, there is nothing a fax machine can do that a computer with an internet connection can’t do faster. Despite the improvements to the fax machine’s speed and capabilities over decades of development, most are likely collecting dust. 

In its day though, the facsimile machine was groundbreaking technology. Samuel Morse sent the first telegram in 1938, and inventors have been working on improving the technology ever since

How does a Fax Machine Work?

Capturing the Image

After early photographers began experimenting with potassium iodide, inventors have used it in countless inventions for its photosensitive properties.

Think about how photo negatives flip the light and dark parts of an image. When a photographer takes a picture, the camera’s shutter opens and closes quickly, only allowing a small amount of light through. With film, the parts of the image that are exposed to the most light are hardened by the reaction, while darker areas do not change and can be washed out. 

This is like scanning a document: the presence and lack of light are what determine the outcome. Modern scanners use a glass slide with a bright light underneath and a light sensor on top. The machine sections the document into a grid pattern, scans the grid line-by-line, and labels each cell light or dark. 

Transmitting & Printing the Image

The earliest precursor in this regard is the telegram, the most basic form of long-distance communication. Samuel Morse created morse code to translate the beeps and pauses between them. Either a charge was being applied to the line or not. 

For faxing, the grid pattern uses a translation system to process the information collected by the light sensor. Have you ever heard the sound faxes make? These shrill noises contain the information gathered during a scan. While piercing for us, it’s the only language the machine understands. 

Modern fax machines then use a pen fixed to one horizontal and one vertical beam to reproduce the information on the paper line-by-line, just like printers do with information from a computer.

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Brief History of the Fax Machine

  • 1843 – The First Electric Printing Telegraph

Alexander Bain, the Scottish inventor who patented the first electric clock in 1841, applied his expertise to create the Electric Printing telegraph. By using a clock to synchronize two pendulums, Bain was able to scan and print a text simultaneously on paper previously exposed to a chemical solution. 

  • 1880 – The First 2-D Image Scan

Developed by Shelford Binwell, the scanning phototelegraph used a selenium photocell inside a rotating cylinder with a small hole to scan an illuminated image on a glass slide. The resulting electric signal was transmitted through a platinum wire that touched a second rotating cylinder, this one covered in potassium iodide-treated paper. When exposed to a charge, the paper would darken.

  • 1888 – First Transmission of Handwritten Words

Invented by Elisha Gray, the telautograph was not only the first machine to scan and transmit handwritten words and signatures, but it was also the first to create copies with a stationary sheet of paper. Instead of using rotating cylinders wrapped in paper like its precursors, it used a vertical and a horizontal bar to move a pen across the paper. 

  • 1924 – AT&T

The AT&T corporation sent the first images over telephone wire rather than radio from New York to Chicago. These 15 images were newsprint quality. The same year, AT&T used this telephone wire method to share the first color image facsimile. 

  • 1964 – The Xerox Fax Machine is Born

The Long Distance Xerography system used two separate devices to send a fax: a scanner and a printer. This set the stage for their 1966 Magnafax Telecopier, which was easier to set up and operate than previous iterations. Additionally, it was able to send a letter-sized document in about 6 minutes, which was fast for its time. 

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Are Fax Machines Obsolete?

Ever since the first internet fax service in 1996, the need for physical fax machines has plummeted. For a device that cost about $20,000 in the 1980s, it would have been hard to imagine it would have had such a steep fall. That is until email and other digital modes of sharing information emerged.  

While internet fax still required a scanner to make a digital copy of the document, everything changed further in 2010 when fax by phone emerged. With this, you can snap a photo of the document with your phone and send it directly from there. For most people, the big, bulky fax machines were replaced by a pocket-sized phone

But, despite the many faster, cheaper, and easier methods available for sending images, documents, and signatures, there are professionals in the healthcare and court systems that still rely on physical machines. 

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Why do Healthcare Providers Still Use Fax Machines?

Since the E-sign Act was passed in 2000, an electronic signature has been equally as binding as a handwritten signature. This, combined with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), made electronic signatures commonplace. But if an emailed signature is just as valid as a faxed signature, why are faxes still used?

HIPAA sets out security requirements and increasingly expensive penalty tiers based on the covered entity’s adherence to regulations. These regulations limit how healthcare providers can share medical records, as the method must meet security standards. It’s important that the entire release of information process protects patient privacy.

Simply put, healthcare providers still use fax machines because they offer a more secure connection than email and internet fax. Additionally, the incompatibility between different electronic health record (EHR) systems creates a need for a secondary system to bridge the gaps and prevent data siloing. 

Additionally, EHRs can have confusing interfaces that are difficult to navigate. A 2018 poll by Stanford found that 71% of participating healthcare providers said EHRs greatly contribute to physician burnout. It is understandable that the relatively simple fax machine would be a preferable solution. 

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The Disadvantages of Fax Machines

Even though many providers swear by the classic process, there are still downsides to using fax machines to send medical records. These include:

  • Phone lines must be clear. If the phone line rings, it can easily interrupt incoming faxes. The machine prints as information comes in, and it doesn’t print what it can’t hear. The only way to avoid this is to pay for an expensive dedicated line.
  • Nobody is perfect, all humans are prone to error. In the healthcare system, however, a single error can cause devastating penalties. Every step is manual and can be done incorrectly: retrieving the record, filtering out only the requested information, scanning the document, and punching in the fax number.
  • Paper and ink are wasted when you must print the records to store an already digital document onto another computer. An email address is free to create, free to use, and requires no physical material other than the device. In addition to ink and paper, however, fax machines have a lot of moving parts that may require maintenance. 
  • Physical copies of medical records require immediate attention. If the sender does not shred the records once the fax is finished, the wrong person may steal them. Additionally, if the receiver doesn’t know a fax is incoming, it could sit in the tray unsupervised for a long time before being noticed. 
  • Machine disposal requires care. When a fax machine scans medical records, it stores the image. Early machines use a thermal print cartridge roll and newer ones use a hard drive. This means that a criminal with physical access to a machine could steal a myriad of private information.

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Faxing vs Electronic Release of Information

Requesting and releasing medical records electronically with HIPAA-compliant software is an easier, faster, and more secure ROI method that doesn’t require the use of a bulky machine from the 80s. ChartRequest’s paper-free workflow breaks down data silos and improves the ease of sharing information. 

  • Get your records faster. Healthcare staff legally must send medical records within 30 days of receiving the request. They can get an additional 30-day extension too if they provide a written explanation, meaning you may not get your requested medical records for 60 days. With ChartRequest, however, the average turnaround time is approximately 3 business days. 
  • Designed for the user. Our electronic ROI software offers the simplest release of information process possible. We ask for only the essential information to help you submit a request in just minutes.
  • Never lose a request. With a fax machine, any interrupted connection or misplaced sheet of paper can result in a lost request. ChartRequest automatically organizes every incoming request by status, so you can filter out the requests that need your attention. 
  • Promote patient empowerment. Giving patients an active role in their health information management incentivizes them to monitor their health, follow physician advice, and close the loop with referrals. Additionally, if the patient has their personal health record in their pocket, first responders in emergency situations are able to better inform their care decisions.
  • Save money. Between material costs of the alternatives, the additional time and labor required to submit a request without dedicated software, and the prevention of HIPAA violation, healthcare providers can spend less with ChartRequest. 

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No Faxing is Necessary with ChartRequest

There is a good chance that fax machines will fall into obscurity alongside the telegraph, pager, and cassette tapes. While some people will always try to keep old traditions alive, a majority of the population has already left this device behind. 

As the internet grows increasingly accessible to people in remote parts of the United States, more and more fax machines are sending their shrill swan songs. People who couldn’t get a web connection to their home likely used fax machines out of necessity. This situation is significantly less common today.

With the increasing security standards across the web, one major argument in favor of fax machines has lost its steam. Gmail, for example, supports Transport Layer Security (TLS) encryption if the receiving email address is able to process it. 

Additionally, for the general public, a fax machine isn’t even the best way to send a fax.  For documents you need to send via fax, internet fax services are more user friendly. You can even take a picture of a document with your phone and easily fax it without leaving Gmail.  

While fax functionality comes built-in with many scanners and printers on the market, most don’t actually see that feature used. Fax machines are on their way out, and we want to help send them off. 

Whether you’re a patient looking to get records for yourself and your family, a legal or insurance professional working on a case, or a healthcare facility of any size, ChartRequest can help. Create an account today, and let your fax machine start collecting dust too.

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For our complete guide to electronic health records for healthcare providers, click here.

For our complete guide to electronic health records for legal professionals, click here.