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Opinion Column

The New Momentum Behind Electronic Health Records

A funny thing happened on the way to a 21st century health care system.

Many different groups representing vastly different interests across health care recently came together around an issue that seemed like a roadblock to building a healthier America a short time ago.

At a press conference earlier this month sponsored by the medical journal Health Affairs and Brandeis University’s Health Industry Forum, major insurance companies, provider groups, doctors, hospitals, and patients announced that they will team up to support so-called “meaningful use” regulations – guidelines that doctors and hospitals will have to follow to earn incentives for moving from paper to electronic medical files.

In doing so, they cleared a major hurdle to a health information technology revolution that will cut health care costs, reduce paperwork, improve outcomes and empower patients.

Today, in almost every other sector besides health, electronic information exchange is the way we do business. A cashier scans a bar code to add up our grocery bill. We check our bank balance and take out cash with a debit card that works in any ATM machine.

But despite the clear benefits of health IT, only two in ten doctors and one in ten hospitals use even a basic electronic record system.

That means patients spend too much time filling out the same form over and over. And doctors spend too much time writing down medical histories, tracking down x-rays and repeating expensive tests.

Health care providers may agree with the benefits of electronic health records. But they’ve also believed that adopting them was too difficult and expensive.

As the event earlier this month demonstrated, that’s changing – in large part due to an ambitious investment we made in the Recovery Act to reduce many of the obstacles that limited the spread of electronic health records in the past.

As part of that investment, we’ve created health IT Regional Extension Centers across the country where providers can go to find out which health record system fits their needs.

We’re training thousands of new health IT professionals who can help providers make the switch from paper to digital records.

And we’re providing grants to states for health information exchange, which will ensure that information can be shared across provider and hospital networks, while maintaining our strong commitment to patient privacy.

In the past, some providers also had financial concerns. For smaller practices and clinics in particular, the promise of greater efficiency and long-term savings was often overshadowed by the up-front costs of putting in an electronic health record system and the staff to administer it.

That’s why, under the Recovery Act, providers will be able to earn substantial bonus payments if they adopt electronic records: up to $44,000 in Medicare or almost $64,000 in Medicaid for individual providers, and millions of dollars for hospitals.

To earn these incentives, providers will have to meet “meaningful use” standards which require that electronic health records are, in fact, used to improve the quality of care – to collect essential health data, support better clinical decisions, and give patients electronic access to their own medical records, so they can be full partners in their care. These systems must be able to encrypt information and automatically logoff users, among other safeguards.

Previously, some provider groups had expressed skepticism about these standards, worrying that they were too burdensome. But this month’s press conference underscored an emerging consensus that the benefits of electronic health records far outweigh the costs – and that the time for action is now.

In fact, the most promising sign for the future of our health care system is not what stakeholders were saying, but what they’re already doing.

At that same press conference, major insurers like Aetna, United and WellPoint announced their own provider loan and training programs for electronic health records.

The Federation of State Medical Boards announced that is taking the first steps toward encouraging the use of health IT to maintain professional licensing.

And two of the nation’s largest provider groups, Delaware’s Christiana Care Health System and Partners HealthCare in Massachusetts, said that in the future they’re going train and support providers who adopt electronic health records, and avoid providers who don’t make the switch to health IT.

In other words, the entire health care industry is starting to see how much it has to gain from health IT.

Still, the biggest benefits from this transformation will go to people like Will Bloedow who also spoke at the press conference.

Like a lot of Americans, Will struggles with chronic disease, juggling a heart condition, diabetes and asthma. When he experienced a heart incident while traveling in Minnesota recently, Will’s hospital in Wisconsin sent his entire medical record to the Minnesota hospital by secure email within half an hour-saving time, money and possibly, his life.

Over the last 30 years, we’ve watched information technology revolutionize industry after industry, dramatically improving the customer experience and driving down costs. Now that government and stakeholders are coming together we are finally poised to make the same transformation in health care and leave the days of illegible notes, misplaced folders and musty file cabinets behind for good.

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Cost and Quality Health Industry