Is digital more patient-friendly than paper? New study says yes

In 2011, it’s the norm to book a vacation, take a course and even order groceries online. The move to a digital “self-serve” model is transforming most industries, including health care, in an effort to be quicker and improve ease of use and accuracy.

However, in many areas of health care, there is still a reliance on hand-written information. Parents often need to fill out forms about their child’s behaviour, medications, symptoms and other vital facts that health-care providers rely on to effectively care for the child. This is usually done in a busy clinic waiting room, with parents feeling rushed.

In a new study by Children’s Hospital Boston and The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto, researchers measured whether it is more of a burden on parents to fill out paper or electronic forms. They also examined how health literacy affected their ability to provide the required information. They found the majority of parents prefer the electronic option. The study was recently published in the online edition of the Journal of Medical Internet Research.    

“Providing health information can be a burden; it takes time, energy and effort,” says Dr. Stephen Porter, lead author of the study and former Staff Physician at Children’s Hospital Boston, who is now Head of Emergency Medicine at SickKids and Associate Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Toronto. “The question is whether a computer-based environment could improve or worsen this burden.”

The study focused on parents of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They chose this particular condition, because in order to effectively manage ADHD, parents and health-care providers must share information effectively to support decisions regarding the child’s care. In the research experiment, parents were asked to provide information about their child’s behaviour, prescribed medications and any side-effects. Both paper forms and a novel computer application developed for the study were designed to cover the same scope of content.

“The question has been raised as to whether computer-based interactions will increase the digital divide and negatively affect patients whose parents have lower levels of education, income or literacy,” says Porter. “Our findings show the contrary; the electronic model actually minimized the impact from any disparity based on parents’ literacy levels.”

Specific features of the computer application include a multimedia component, clear instructions, defined steps and feedback. This model provides more support for sharing data on medications with the option to choose from a list of medications or type them in. The electronic form also prompts the parent to enter the strength, frequency and quantity of the medication, while the paper version simply asks the parent to record all medications with as much detail as possible. The results show that the computer-based environment was faster, easier, and clearer. These benefits led to parents’ willingness to re-engage in other information-giving tasks, which is key to improving patient care for chronic conditions. 

Currently, there is little research to inform the look, feel, and functionality of patient-inclusive systems for health data exchange. Porter notes that the findings published in JMIR are critical to the design and implementation of personal health record solutions for paediatric chronic conditions where parent-provider information exchange is essential to their child’s health.  

This study was funded by the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.

About The Hospital for Sick Children
The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) is recognized as one of the world’s foremost paediatric health-care institutions and is Canada’s leading centre dedicated to advancing children’s health through the integration of patient care, research and education. Founded in 1875 and affiliated with the University of Toronto, SickKids is one of Canada’s most research-intensive hospitals and has generated discoveries that have helped children globally.  Its mission is to provide the best in complex and specialized family-centred care; pioneer scientific and clinical advancements; share expertise; foster an academic environment that nurtures health-care professionals; and champion an accessible, comprehensive and sustainable child health system.  SickKids is proud of its vision of Healthier Children. A Better World.™ For more information, please visit

About SickKids Research & Learning Tower
SickKids Research & Learning Tower will bring together researchers from different scientific disciplines and a variety of clinical perspectives, to accelerate discoveries, new knowledge and their application to child health — a different concept from traditional research building designs.  The Tower will physically connect SickKids science, discovery and learning activities to its clinical operations.  Designed by award-winning architects Diamond + Schmitt Inc. and HDR Inc. with a goal to achieve LEED® Gold Certification for sustainable design, the Tower will create an architectural landmark as the eastern gateway to Toronto’s Discovery District.  SickKids Research & Learning Tower is funded by a grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and community support for the ongoing fundraising campaign. For more information, please visit

For more information, please contact:

Matet Nebres
The Hospital for Sick Children
[email protected]

Caitlin McNamee-Lamb
The Hospital for Sick Children
416-813-7654, ext. 143
[email protected]