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Panel Aims for Digital Health Files

A U.S.-appointed group will explore ways to make patient records available on a national electronic system.

June 07, 2005|Lisa Girion | Times Staff Writer

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt announced Monday that he would head a new panel that would push for a national system to exchange medical records electronically.

Comparing the importance of this mission to the linking of the nation's railroads, Leavitt said standardizing, digitizing and connecting all U.S. health records was so crucial to the economy and to patient safety that it warranted the leadership of the federal government.

"The use of electronic health records and other information technology will transform our healthcare system by reducing medical errors, minimizing paperwork hassles, lowering costs and improving quality of care," Leavitt said, speaking to a health information technology conference in New York. "We will bring together the public and private sectors to transform healthcare as we know it."

The committee also will recommend priorities for health information technology goals that will benefit consumers, such as improving drug safety and bio-terrorism surveillance.

Leavitt said he would appoint as many as 17 members from government and private enterprise to a panel dubbed the American Health Information Community. It will make recommendations to the Health and Human Services Department on how to make health records uniform, digital and interoperable while protecting the confidentiality of patient records.

Privacy "is a particularly poignant concern when one is dealing with a health record," Leavitt said later in a phone interview. "Records have to be private. They have to be secure or people won't use this."

Patients would benefit from a system that reduces their need to shuttle lab results from one hospital to another or fill out the same kind of paperwork for each doctor they see, he said.

"The goal is to have the medical clipboard become a thing of the past," he said.

HHS, through the Medicare and Medicaid programs, is the largest single buyer of medical services in the nation. This allows the federal agency to drive change in the way hospitals, physicians and private insurers do business.

"Once the market has structure, providers, medical professionals and vendors will innovate, create efficiencies and improve care," Leavitt said. Already about 200 companies offer electronic medical records systems, though they are not yet designed to exchange data efficiently.

The effort is aimed at advancing President Bush's call for most Americans to have electronic health records within a decade. Employers also are pushing for technological improvements in healthcare information systems in an effort to save money by, for instance, reducing the need for duplicate medical tests because results have been lost or are inaccessible.

Leavitt also called the mission a moral one, saying that improved records-keeping and access would promote patient safety. The Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit research organization affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences, has estimated that medical errors kill as many as 98,000 patients in U.S. hospitals each year.

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