Billions of dollars have been set aside for the migration of medical records to digital form, and the big software vendors are scrambling to collect their piece of the pie.
Under the stimulus act enacted by the government in February, hospitals can apply for several million dollars to implement tech programs over the next five years, and individual physicians can get up to $44,000. If powerful monetary incentives are not enough, the payment is offset by a penalty for medical businesses that fail to comply by 2015; they will receive a cut in Medicare reimbursement. It’s easy to imagine scenarios where electronic record keeping would prevent mistakes and provide convenience.
Hurricane Katrina provided a tragic lesson in the need for electronic records. Traditional paper medical records used by many doctors and hospitals were lost forever when the buildings they were stored in were destroyed. New Orleans’ VA hospital had kept digital records for many years, and when the storm threatened, digital patient history, tests, X-rays, ultrasounds, and prescriptions were quickly encrypted and shipped to Houston for safekeeping. VA patient info was available in just a few hours.
Natural disasters aside, there are many practical reasons to have a shared digital database. Imagine you’re on a vacation during a long holiday weekend and you get seriously ill. Digital records would allow any hospital to access your medical history, your allergies, and your prescriptions – and possibly save your life by avoiding potentially fatal drug interactions or allergic reactions.
Online medical records can provide safety measures for both doctor and patient. Since patients may see a number of doctors in specialized fields, centralized electronic medical records would prevent duplicate testing, undesirable drug interactions, and doctor shopping for duplicate prescriptions. Patients would no longer be required to supply prescription information to each doctor, eliminating mistakes. Printed prescriptions would be more readable and therefore more accurate – no more undecipherable scribbling. Patients will also benefit from the ability to update their own records from home with new contact information, eliminating the need to arrive at the doctor’s office early, and cutting down on paperwork.
Perhaps one of the most valuable reasons to centralize medical records is disease outbreak identification. Public health officials at the CDC would be able to spot related cases for faster response to potential epidemics, as well as more accurate tracking and reporting.
The need for electronic medical reporting is one of the few things that Republicans and Democrats largely agree on, but putting the theory into practice may prove to be more difficult than anticipated, and it remains to be seen whether the system will deliver as expected. But that’s the subject for a future post.