U.S. Sets Sights on Electronic Health Records

Aims to catch up with industry, make health history portable

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By
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, July 26, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Scott Wallace's dog, Samantha, has computerized health records. His car does, too. But he does not.

"I have more information on the treatment of my 14-year-old Acura Legend than my own treatment in the last 14 years, and I have more current available information about my dog than I do about myself or any of my kids," Wallace said. "That's crazy."

The U.S. government agrees, so sometime over the next decade Wallace and many other dog and car owners should get their own computerized health records.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson has just released the first outline of a 10-year plan to computerize health care. The report, cumbersomely named The Decade of Health Information Technology: Delivering Consumer-centric and Information-Rich Health Care, was unveiled in Washington, D.C., at an information technology summit.

"No longer will up to 100,000 people die from medical errors," said Dr. David J. Brailer, the new National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, a position created by President Bush in April. "No longer will we spend up to $300 billion a year on inappropriate treatment or up to $150 billion on administrative waste. No longer will we have to fill out the same form 50 times."

The issue, says Wallace, owner of Samantha and president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Health Information Technology in Chicago, is "how do you make information move with patients, so that patients aren't having to carry it around on their own physically and in their head? How do you make the system more efficient?" The alliance represents an effort to use more technology in the health-care arena.

The report, which was prepared by Brailer, is an outgrowth of President Bush's recent call for electronic health records for most Americans.

According to the report, the U.S. health-care system lags behind banks and grocery stores when it comes to information technology. In 2002, only 13 percent of hospitals and 14 percent to 28 percent of physicians' practices reported using electronic health records.

The new system would let consumers access medication information on the Web or via phone and even teleconference with their physician over the Internet, Brailer explained. "They'll have access to information on how well their doctor or hospital does various procedures," he added. "They can pick the provider that works best for them. It's consumer-centric. It's built around the person and not the different players."

Needless to say, the initiative will take great coordination of an extremely fragmented health-care system. And it will need to ensure that records stay secure. According to Wallace, this is not as much of an issue as it sounds. "I'm not stupid enough to think that all records are forever impenetrable, but most are, and at least we have systems [on computers] to see who was looking," he said.

The technology already exists. "This is not a technology issue and not a health-care issue. It's a leadership issue," Wallace said. In fact, various experiments around the country are under way, including one with Medicare recipients in Indiana.

Wallace's own interest in the subject came out of personal experience. After suffering a stroke, Wallace's father had what's known in medical parlance as an "adverse drug event." A cardiologist prescribed medication that conflicted with what the neurologist had already given him, causing his heart to stop. "The squad picked him up and raced him to the hospital," Wallace recalled. "This was a third set of doctors who had to figure out what the first two had done."

"What we're trying to get to with the whole concept of electronic health records is the idea that patients aren't responsible for their information, and physicians aren't responsible for their information," Wallace continued. "The system provides the information. It puts up big flashing screening, saying, 'Don't do this.' It allows for a coordination. I have yet to meet a dastardly doctor. They want to do well, but systems are bad."

Wallace eventually moved his father to a Veterans Administration facility that had a centralized computer system.

As for the dog, Samantha, the age of computers allowed her to vacation in Canada. "We were going to Canada and we were unaware that we had to have the immunization records with us," Wallace related. But sitting at customs outside the Peace Bridge separating New York State from Ontario, Wallace called up Samantha's records on the Internet and showed them to the agent. After reviewing her medical history on the computer screen, Canadian Customs waved the whole family through.

More information

For more on the report, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

SOURCES: David J. Brailer, M.D., Ph.D., National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, Washington, D.C.; Scott Wallace, president and chief executive officer, National Alliance for Health Information Technology, Chicago; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report, The Decade of Health Information Technology: Delivering Consumer-centric and Information-Rich Health Care

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