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Transforming Health Care: The Potential of Electronic Medical Records

By Roy Devine

August 10, 2010 | Commentary | The health care industry has long known the day would come when it would move to electronic medical records (EMRs), but has been slow to make this transition. Now those delays are over.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act mandates adoption of EMRs by 2011, providing $17.2 billion in incentives to help providers make this move. The federal government must also bring millions of medical records from the Department of Defense and Veteran’s Administration online. This is further complicated as companies subject to HIPAA will face fines of up to $1.5 million for a single breach of data privacy.

But providers needn’t take this as bad news. In fact, using EMRs across the health care spectrum will yield enormous benefits for providers and patients alike.

Provider Benefits
The health care industry can finally eliminate the outrageous costs of paper-based medical storage. In 2005 alone, the pharmaceutical industry spent $55 billion moving paper information back and forth through the lifecycle. Upwards of 10 million pages of medical data are sent to the FDA each year. Eradicating redundancy of paper records would significantly cut costs. But that’s just the start.

EMRs provide the foundation for analytics that can improve patient outcomes and vastly drive down health care costs. A holistic view of patients’ full medical history could make the whole concept of preventative medicine a reality. Businesses across various industries are already using data analytics to better understand and serve their clients’ needs. This concept can be extended to the health care space—providing a sophisticated way to analyze patient records to understand individual risk factors and encourage patient to get regular check-ups. Through preventative medicine, health problems are discovered and treated earlier, improving patient care while saving money.

Transitioning from the “sick-care” model to preventative care requires an integrated data set. Instead of approaching document capture at the individual department or provider level, providers need to take a broader approach to information storage and sharing. This will result in significant improvements in the delivery of care.

Patient Benefits
Swift access to the right medical data saves lives. Knowledge about diabetic or epileptic patients, for example, is tremendously helpful in first-responder situations.

No matter when and where a patient is being treated, full, accurate medical information is necessary for improving care. Diagnosing patients accurately is predicated on the amount of knowledge the doctor has about the patient. Imagine, for example, if health care providers had access to our entire medical history to make differential diagnoses right on the spot.

In addition, EMRs will enable a more holistic approach to caring for patients. Traditionally, there have been significant—and dangerous—gaps in critical health care information. Patients might visit five different care givers yet their data doesn’t always follow them, leading to misdiagnoses, inaccurate medication dosing, and other frightening errors. Ensuring highly portable health care information can save lives and improve the quality of care.

What the industry needs is a straightforward way to transmit data electronically from provider to vendor to patient.

EMR Hurdles
Not surprisingly, the transition to EMRs is cause for confusion and consternation. Organizations need to address issues such as data synchronization and access control. And they must contend with the serious worry of identity theft. Having one’s entire medical history and digital footprint in one place is a wonderful way to improve medical care but necessitates resolution of user authentication questions.

These IT challenges are not insurmountable. Various streaming and authentication technologies are maturing enough to enable organizations to capture data in a distributed format. For example, creating a smart card-like system requiring fingerprint authentication could be the right solution for delivering data portability and security.

The isolated nature of data models is the greatest challenge in today’s IT environments. While there are standards being developed for data portability, they are not being adopted across the board, and many of the propose standards don’t follow existing international standards.

We need to define a standard interface akin to the international standard for transfer of funds in the banking industry. Banks adopted a single standard that controls financial transactions, regardless of the institution involved. They have a vested interest in this common goal. Similarly, health care providers would benefit greatly from having a more streamlined information flow, dictated by a common set of standards.

Health care providers can no longer rely on labor-intensive, error-prone manual data sharing. EMRs add tremendous value across the health care supply chain. The move to digital, portable records is about much more than regulatory compliance. It’s about saving lives. But to achieve this lofty goal, the health care industry must open up its processes, accommodating ubiquitous sharing of medical records. The resulting benefits are impressive: a foundation to actually improve patient outcomes and make the most of every health care dollar.

Roy Devine is associate vice president for Patni Life Sciences, a unit of IT consulting firm Patni Computer Systems.
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